Christmas lockup

The boy's little sister couldn't wait to see him. On Saturday, as we made the hour-long drive to the Georgia detention center where her brother is being held, charged with murder, the fourth grader - referred to by her first initial, A., in this month's full story about the shooting and the ICS response to it - tried to hold herself together.

The boy's little sister couldn't wait to see him. On Saturday, as we made the hour-long drive to the Georgia detention center where her brother is being held, charged with murder, the fourth grader - referred to by her first initial, A., in this month's full story about the shooting and the ICS response to it - tried to hold herself together. But when we got to Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center, A. was turned away. Rules allowed a maximum of two visitors per inmate. The young Liberian girl watched as first her mom - wearing a green sweatsuit with "Social Climber" scrawled across the rear - then her older sister passed through the metal detector and into the visiting room. Shyly, A. waved to her brother through the glass door. The 15-year-old waved back, grinning. Then A., and I, and her brother's high school friend Claire - a maturely dressed fellow refugee teenager wearing a big, incongruous plaid hat - sat down in the waiting room's plastic chairs. There was a snack machine there, and A. chose some Sun Chips and a Reese's bar, and began rifling through a mangy copy of Sports Illustrated that some other visitor had left behind. Claire refused any snacks, and buried her face in her hands. I sat beside them, and surveyed the room for distractions. The only thing there was a small Christmas tree that had seen better days. Someone had begun to decorate it - had actually wrapped a string of colored lights about halfway down, before giving up at an intractable knot. They'd stuck this knot to the tree, and now the multicolored ganglion of light pulsed there accusingly. One silver ball ornament hung beside it. Next to the tree sat two big boxes full of ornaments and Christmas wall decorations. It looked like no one had gotten around to hanging them. Figuring this was our ticket, I sidled up to the front desk, where an officer with a chipped tooth was in charge. Could they, I asked him, nodding back at the girls, maybe help decorate the Christmas tree? The desk officer looked uncertain, and deferred to an another standing behind him, who said, laughing, skeptically that the tree was liable to tip over if anyone hung anything on it. Just then, one of the girls made a noise behind me. I hurried back to the waiting area, and asked: "What's up?""She's sad, because she want to go in there," explained A. Sure enough, under her hat, Claire was sobbing into her hands. I sat down beside A. and sized up the tree. It wasn't leaning that I could see; it was just a scrawny tree, not five feet tall, in what looked like a serviceable holder. "Did he say we could decorate it?" A. asked. I went back to the desk to try again. This time, I tried to win over the desk officer. "Listen," I said, "I just thought maybe, if you wouldn't mind us hanging some ornaments, it would give the little girls something to do besides feeling bad." He seemed sympathetic. He gestured toward a towering guard standing at the door of the visiting room. "Ask him," he said.I approached the guard at the door and made my case. He too seemed sympathetic. But before he could issue a verdict, the skeptical guard piped up again: "No, that tree liable to fall over, and if it fall down on you, we in all kind of trouble." I thanked them anyway. "Sorry about that," said the guard at the door.Then, the desk officer said: "Wait, would they like to draw a picture? If they'd like to draw, we've got paper." With care, he produced two clipboards, some white paper, two 2-inch stubs of No. 2 pencil, and a pink eraser. "It gonna be Christmas by the time you done getting that paper," teased the skeptical officer.I thanked the desk officer, and asked - if the girls drew pictures for the locked-up boy - whether he could pass them on. He looked nervous, but said he probably could.The girls got to work: A. drew a Christmas tree, leaning to one side - then balled it up and drew instead a cartoon picture of a boy and a girl, dressed for what looked like a sock-hop, standing under a spinning disco ball and a butterfly. Claire, too cool to send a drawing, wrote a note about various break-ups and goings on in their circle of friends. I folded a paper bird. We delivered them nervously to the desk officer, and he disappeared."Do he read them?" Claire asked. "He might," A. said sagely. I worried they might end up in the trash. But he kept his promise. The next thing we saw, the boy was sitting in the doorway laughing, unfolding the notes and the drawing, and waving around the unmistakable form of a little white bird."I wonder what life is like there," A. said, when we were out in the free air again.

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