Tuesday, May 26, 1936
Even when you live on a prison island with crafty criminals plotting ways to knock you off, summer is the best time of the year.
No tests. No homework. No getting up early to catch the ferry. No teachers who think you flunked a few grades because you’re kind of big for thirteen and a half.
Summer is freedom. Not for the prisoners, of course. But for us kids who live on Alcatraz Island.
Naturally, summer on Alcatraz isn’t like summer other places. For one thing, the weather in the San Francisco Bay can be colder and foggier than in winter. For another, kids can’t go many places on the island. We’re not allowed in the cell house, in the industry buildings, in the west-side gardens, on most of the beaches, and in all the guard towers.
Our fathers work in the prison up top, so they’re allowed everywhere. But even with restricted access, there are two decent spots to play baseball: the parade grounds and down by the dock. And there’s one other Alcatraz kid who can really play.
She’s a girl. But still.
Baseball . . . that’s what I’m thinking about as I shovel in my breakfast toast, hoping the last five days of school will go fast.
My father frowns at me, crushing crumbs with his fork. “Saw the warden at shooting practice this morning. He wants to talk to you.”
I stop chewing. “The warden? Why?”
“Uh-oh! Uh-oh!” my older sister, Natalie, mutters. Her blond-brown head is bent forward as she counts toothpicks in rows. She’s tall, like my mom and me, but she holds herself in a way that makes her look younger and smaller than she is.
My father’s hand hovers over Natalie’s toothpicks. “Okay if I take one?”
Natalie hands him the last one in line.
We moved up here from Santa Monica a year and a half ago so Nat could go to a school called the Esther P. Marinoff, which helps kids whose brains aren’t wired like everyone else’s. My parents sacrificed a lot for her to go to that school. We all did.
My father was an electrician in Santa Monica, but he had a hard time finding a job up here. It’s almost impossible to get work on account of the Depression. I don’t understand exactly what the Depression is except it has to do with the banks collapsing and people not having money. The only job my father could get was as a guard and an electrician in the prison. Everybody likes him here, though, so he was promoted to assistant warden.
Since Nat’s been at the Esther P. Marinoff, she’s learned how to have a conversation--not just echo what you say. She still has a difficult time looking people in the eye, but she has been trying really hard. Now we’re helping her make friends.
My father watches Nat move on to a new project: cutting pictures out of magazines and pasting them to boards. My mom has written “happy” on one board. Natalie hunts for pictures of people who are happy. There’s another board for “sad,” but Nat doesn’t care much about that one.
“Look at you, sweet pea. One day you’ll find a nice man to marry, and you’ll live in your very own house.”
My mother doesn’t like when my father talks about Nat getting married. She thinks it’s more than Natalie will ever manage, but my father says nonsense, his girl can do anything.
Dad strokes his bald spot. “You’ll never guess who I drove up top last night.”
I don’t have to guess. I know. “Piper.”
Piper is the warden’s thirteen-year-old daughter. When I first moved to the island and I was stupid as a stone, I had a crush on her. Now I know better. I hope I do, anyway. Sometimes I get a little turned around by how cute she is.
Piper has a good side . . . but it’s tiny and not easy to locate. Dealing with her is like potty-training a snake. Which end does the business? I don’t even know.
I take a bite of a crispy corner of my toast. “Am I supposed to go before school?”
“Shouldn’t take long.” My father glances at the clock. “The warden’s a busy man. And you, sweet pea.” He turns to Natalie. “Happy day-before-your-birthday.”
Nat doesn’t answer.
Things have always been screwy around Natalie’s birthday. Every year Mom pretends Natalie is turning ten again, instead of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or, this year, seventeen. Mom wants Nat to be younger so she has more time to catch up with the other kids.
After breakfast, I put on my scratchy shirt and tie, my good trousers and squeaky shoes.
When my mom sees me, she takes a step back. “Moose! What happened to you?”
I shrug. No sense in getting her worked up. If my dad hasn’t told her, I’m certainly not going to.
Outside, I trudge past the guard tower, which is a tiny room on three-story-tall metal legs. All the firepower on the island is up in the towers and in the gun galleries. An armed guard down with the convicts can be jumped, ambushed, taken down. But when a guard is up high with his gun trained on us, we’re all safe. Or as safe as we can be on a twelve-acre rock with kidnappers, con men, hit men, bank robbers, criminals, crooks, murderers, and maybe an assassin or two.
I walk up the steep switchback to the top of the island, which really stinks. Alcatraz is the world’s biggest bird toilet; plus there are three hundred and fifty prisoner toilets up here. They don’t help the aroma, that’s for sure.
The sky directly over the island is a crisp blue, but the fog is rolling through the Golden Gate. Blink once, it’s sunny; blink twice and the world has gone gray.
I’m in no hurry to see the warden, so I take a detour by the recreation-yard wall.
My dad says the prison yard is a little piece of hell. Things happen there you don’t ever want to know about.
The prisoners play baseball here on weekend afternoons. I’ve never seen them play, but I’ve heard them. One of the cons, a guy named Fastball, who works in the warden’s house, made it to the minor leagues before his bank-robbing career got in the way. Another, Fat Fogarty, hits so hard, he’s broken two bats.
It’s scary that they give baseball bats to felons, but I guess baseball can make any guy behave. My father says baseball is as important inside the prison as it is outside it. He says the prison-game scores get posted right next to the major league scores on the menu every week.
I keep walking past the cell house, where a con is shouting about a hanging tree. I’ve never been inside the main part of the cell house, and I sure don’t want to go in there, either.
Since a convict stabbed my father a few months ago, I haven’t thought it was so great to live on an island with a bunch of murderers . . . especially with a sister like Natalie.
Copyright © 2018 by Gennifer Choldenko. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.