The next morning, at 11:30 a.m., Nurse Olive opened Conroe’s door and stuck her head in. “Hey, sleepyhead, you already missed breakfast, and you’re about to miss lunch. Get up.” She slammed the door and then reopened it. “And this was your one day to sleep in. From now on, you’ll set your alarm clock and get up at six like everybody else.” She shut the door.
Conroe opened her eyes. The sleeping pill had knocked her out cold. She forced herself to get out of bed and go into the bathroom to take a shower. The fake tattoo on her forehead washed off easily. The nose ring was fake too—a clip-on she had removed before falling asleep.
When she walked out of the bathroom to get dressed, she realized that her clothes were gone, as well as her boots. She checked the dresser and found an ugly pair of navy pants and a matching shirt. It looked like prison garb. In the closet, she located a pair of canvas sneakers that weren’t quite big enough for her feet. She put them on anyway.
Conroe was surprised to find her door unlocked. She walked out into the hallway, which was empty. She heard people talking or yelling—she wasn’t sure which. Following the noise, she was able to locate the cafeteria.
She walked in and saw a roomful of teenagers and elementary school kids sitting around dozens of tables, eating and talking. Their voices ricocheted off the painted concrete block walls, melding them into what sounded like an angry mob.
Passing through the serving line, she selected the least-disgusting-looking food items and picked up a glass of tea.
She saw Tonya sitting at a table with three other girls.
Conroe avoided their table, walking to the back corner of the room where a teenage boy was sitting by himself. “Mind if I join you?”
He looked up from his tray and appeared to be speechless.
“It’s not life or death,” she said.
“Oh, sorry.” He stood up. “Sure, please. Have a seat.”
“Thank you. My name is Conroe.”
“Glad to meet you, Conroe. Funny name for a girl.”
“And you think my name is funny?”
“I was a long, skinny baby, so…”
“Looks like you still are,” she joked. “How tall are you?”
“Six foot four.”
“Basketball player, huh?”
“Yeah, but I’m no good,” he replied. “You’re tall too. Do you play?”
“Nah. Never even tried. What is this stuff anyway?” She picked at her food with her fork.
“They call it spaghetti and meat. The spaghetti part I believe. Not so sure about the meat.”
“You just checked in, huh?”
“Yep—last night. And then my roommate attacked me.”
“Did she hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine. And they sent her to Solitary.”
“I don’t have a roommate right now,” he said, “but I’ll probably get another any day now. Sure is a lot nicer when you have the room to yourself.”
“Yeah. I guess I’d better enjoy it while I can. I overslept this morning. The sleeping pill that nurse gave me was strong enough to knock out a horse.”
Crane broke a smile. “Yeah, I don’t ever take them.”
“I didn’t think I had a choice.”
“You don’t. Just put it under your tongue until Old Cracker leaves. Then spit it out.”
“Nurse Olive,” he explained. “Her name is Olive Olgencracker. Everybody calls her Old Cracker.”
“She must love that.”
“We don’t say it to her face.”
She sampled the meat. “Oh my, I see what you mean. This is horrid.”
He looked surprised—probably because of her word choice. She shouldn’t have said horrid. The next time she would use the word…awful. Yes, that would be an acceptable alternative. It was important that she talk like everyone else if she hoped to pull this off. That was good, she told herself. Pull this off was a good phrase. That was the key, she realized—to think colloquially. Then she would be less likely to make a mistake.
He studied her. “How did you end up in here?”
Before she could answer, Tonya walked up to the table. “Hey, chicky, what are you doing over here? I thought we were gonna be friends. I saved a place for you at my table.” She nodded to it. “Why don’t you come over and join my posse? Or am I not good enough for you?”
Conroe winked at Crane and then looked up at Tonya. “That’s exactly right, Tonya—you’re not good enough for me. So please go back to your buddies and leave us alone.”
Tonya snarled at Conroe. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I think I’m talking to the least intelligent person in this room.”
Tonya’s new friends apparently smelled a fight coming on. They got up from their table and hurried over to watch.
Tonya took a deep breath and waited for her new buddies to gather at her back before responding.
Conroe rose to her feet. “Please excuse me, Crane.”
“You are so dead.” Tonya swung at Conroe.
Crane jumped up to help Conroe.
But something unexpected happened. At lightning-fast speed, Conroe grabbed Tonya’s fist with her right hand and spun Tonya’s arm around behind her back. With Tonya in a daze, Conroe jammed her left index finger up one of Tonya’s nostrils and pinched her nose between her finger and her thumb.
Her posse stepped back in horror.
Tonya’s left shoulder went up, as though she was attempting to raise her fist and hit Conroe. But her arm just hung there at her side, limp.
Tonya’s knees buckled. “Please let go of me.”
Conroe released her, and she fell to the floor.
Tonya’s new friends deserted her and went back to their table.
Nurse Olive stormed up. “What’s going on here? Are you okay, Tonya?”
Tonya stood up, rubbing her nose and checking the functionality of her arms. “I’m fine.” She walked away.
Nurse Olive glared at Conroe. “You’re coming with me, young lady.”
Conroe followed her out of the cafeteria, looking back at Crane, shrugging.
He smiled at her.