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6:30 PM, Room H103. Three days before the program.

Three days since he took the job, Mason now sits among his faculty--his much-needed assistance, as mentioned by Ari.

He, along with two other individuals, sat in the front row of desks, paying close attention to program director Marissa Camacho’s presentation on roles and first-day activities. It was clear that Mason is the oldest in this room, as he sits among, at least he assumes, people fresh out of college. He could barely keep up, so he keeps his mouth shut; at least until his name is to be called.

After a question from Noni Fuentes, social therapist and counselor, Marissa finishes up her slide and passes it off to Greg Grisham--social worker-turned-auxiliary staff and, for today, minutes notetaker. He presents his particular slide about the “careful” selection process.

“And now… Mr. Wylie?” As if waking up from a trance, Mason’s heart beats its peak for a few seconds, then soon subsides. Right, he’s got a special slide just for today’s orientation...

He had absolutely no reason to be nervous; to one degree or another, he’s met these kids beforehand, albeit briefly…

Let’s see. The last time he’s done a presentation was when he had to do a debriefing for a disturbance case he had eight years ago. He takes a deep breath and rushes to stand beside his particular slide: “INTRODUCTION: MASON WYLIE. FORMER BELFORDE POLICE OFFICER. NEW PROGRAM HEAD.”

“I, uh…” Just three people, in a dimly-lit room, looking at him. No big deal. “I haven’t done this in ages, so if I go too fast...” Applause, all of a sudden. A grin grows in his face.

“I’m… I’m excited to be here. I--worked with the Young Foundation more than two years ago. Now that I’ve--moved on to new horizons, they recognized my skill set and… well, gave me this program, to work among all of you.” Again, cheers of encouragement from the crowd.

“So… where to begin? I worked as a Western District police officer starting 14 years ago…”

――――

First day.

Marissa told him to just sit and observe. In the past few days of prep, he’s glad to learn that he could just observe and step in when he felt the need.

Only six of the original ten attended today. Mason couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed, going on to his own conclusions of the other four’s absence. Greg told him to focus on who was present, at least.

Just as he expected, the room has taken a turn for the gloomy. He could feel it from the kids alone.

But somehow, through Marissa’s prison joke, they all laugh. Mason, standing by the door, chuckles too.

――――

Day 17.

For the most part, everything’s been running smoothly. Marissa has taken much of the lead, consulting Mason for each daily activity they do, and never having him participate directly. Noni has been urging him all week to head some segments because it’s not usually the program director’s job to teach--they’re there more to organize activities, coordinate the staff, and communicate orders from above. As it was, Marissa’s busy enough.

Attendance has stayed at seven kids by this point. One had to finish his jail sentence of six months. Two of them had to return to the hospital due to a relapse.

“For today… I’d like us to take a step back.” No outdoor activities, at least. Maybe another group exercise, never leaving the classroom.

As she explains the steps, Mason decides to grab a desk. The class is familiar with him--mainly as the “brooding man” who stands near the door from time to time. She briefly pauses at Mason’s entrance and continues with a smile of relief.

“Actually, Ms. Camacho…” Mason chimes in, hand raised. “I’d like to take over if that’s alright.” What could go wrong? It’s the same trust activity they just discussed a day ago. Marissa adds surprise to her smile. “Oh? Alright! Mason…”

As the stage is handed over to Mason, he is met with crickets; rightly so, because this is the first time it’s happening. He wished Noni was here to watch.

He scans the faces, hesitates to speak--even letting a few syllables escape. He hasn’t felt this type of resistance since his debrief on turning his old murder case high-profile.

“Tomas,” he lets out finally, smoother and more composed. “Since this group exercise involves words, I’d like for you to provide everyone paper.” Tomas is the kid who traded his juvie sentence for class time here; it’s that bright yellow hoodie of his that caught his attention.

Tomas shuffles through his backpack, and comes up with nothing. “I--I don’t got any…”

“That’s alright,” Mason replies--calmly and composed, surprising even himself. “Malia?” He turns to her, sitting in the middle row, a notepad already placed on top of her desk. “Perfect.”

――――

Day 45. Halfway through the program.

“Used to be an office space for a dot-com company back in 1998.”

For today, Ari has decided to show Mason their future space; a building all to themselves, just as she promised. “Spacious, full of rooms--no ghosts to worry about. Actually--don’t quote me on that.” Mason chuckles, as they walk side by side to survey it.

This location would be on the opposite side of town, a little closer to the richer parts. They watch as it is being stripped of its former identity--a renovation in progress.

“So does this mean?...”

“Yep. You’ve been renewed for two more years.” Mason lets out a breath of pride--and happiness. “You all have been doing really well. We got a couple more board members to back the program. Expect two additional classes soon.”

Mason folds his arms. He looks at the building with glee in his eyes.

――――

Day 61.

I--I tried my best to hold her back but--”

A shocked Greg sits in the classroom, Mason standing in front of him, arms folded. His hands continue to tremble. His polo is covered in blood.

During today’s session, Malia brought a boxcutter and slashed Patrick in the chest; apart from currently detoxing, Malia learned recently that Patrick attacked her brother in the 10th grade, causing her brother to have permanent blindness in one eye. Patrick bled but continued to attack Malia--Greg stepped in and prevented it from getting worse.

He was heading his second class today--it would’ve only been him and Mason working. Had Mason left his office, this would’ve never happened.

“Mason,” a police officer calls, popping his head in the classroom.

“I’ll be right back, Greg.” He gives him a calming pat on the shoulder.

As he exits the door, he pauses, sighs loudly.

“Mason…” the officer calls again. He knows he’s needed for a witness testimony.

Mason paces the floor and abruptly punches a locker; the crunch echoes across the hall. He stops to feel the numbness of his knuckles.

Mason looks up and follows the officer.

――――

Day 105. End of program.

“I’m proud of all of you.”

Mason speaks to the room--the very same classroom they’ve spent their months in--all three of his faculty present, all six graduates with their respective relatives, helping themselves to the snacks they’ve brought in.

“For my faculty, putting up with me and never leaving my side,” Mason continues--he raises his fruit punch to Marissa, Noni, Greg--and Michelle Vu, their newest addition. “To the parents, cousins, siblings here with us today… for taking the time out of your day just for this moment.” He raises his cup to them.

“And for you six. You’ve come such a long way. Your new future begins here.” He raises his cup now to the six students, having made it through thick and thin with them for months. Malia and her classmates look at him with smiles.

“Now, Ms. Hutchins?” To the front-most row sits Ari, a stack of certificates resting on top of her desk. “It’s time to graduate, folks.”

――――

1 year later.

“Yeah… that’ll go to the second floor. See if the elevator’s working--just use that.”

Finally, it’s moving day to the new building. But along with numerous delays and some changes to the program, this was to be expected.

Mason assists with the move, having just asked Michelle and Greg to carry the rest of the computer desks upstairs. He’s currently focused on assembling some of these ergonomic desk chairs--barely the first step of turning this place into a properly functioning classroom.

“Hey, Mason.” And there’s his much-needed help.

Captain Eric de la Cruz has promised to help him with the transition--he didn’t expect him to show up so early.

Mason smiles brightly, just from the strong feeling of nostalgia alone. “My old rival,” he says as he approaches him, giving him a firm handshake and embrace. “Really good to see you.” After a brief phone call, Mason managed to arrange a meetup with Eric that turned into owing him some help.

“I brought some more hands, too,” Eric replies, and promptly, two people show up behind him. Mason assigns them both to assemble the rest of the desks while he starts laying down newspapers for the room’s fresh coat of paint.

“The legendary Mason Wylie--trading his badge for a gradebook and some markers…” Eric elicits a scoff from Mason as they go to get the paint buckets. “I never thought I’d see it, but… you look happy, man.”

“Been a long three years,” Mason replies. As they prepare to paint, Mason summarizes his time in this new assignment: having learned to become a better program head, being more involved with classes, asking for help when he absolutely needed it, and most importantly… designing the activities. “I’m not alone in this, but we’re makin’ it work.”

“I expect nothing less,” Eric tells him. “I’m glad you’re doing well, Mason.” Together, they start opening the buckets.

――――

Three days into designing their curriculum for the new year of the program, Nathan somehow found Mason through his office address. The man practically invited himself to his office, and in the past hour, he’s been talking his ear off.

“I wanted to push him off, man--when he was grabbing my weapon case I told him to fuck off--so… he threw that shit in the box and I saw some of my shurikens break--in pieces, Mason! While I’m there. While I’m fucking there!” He’s currently talking about the story of when a big repo man came in unannounced and started taking some of his things. “But I swear, he was made of steel or something--I know when to back off…”

Mason is too busy worrying about the uneven amount of students per staff--and, now, Nathan’s current repo situation. Maybe with a few more “uh-huh”s and mhm”s, he’ll go away…

“I had to look for my sock money when he was grabbing Lion-o… and that’s when I made a deal with him. 500 dollars every month for one year, with added interest… nobody’s ever gonna take Lion-o from me--” A knock on the door interrupts Nathan.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting anything--” It was Marissa. She lets herself in and hands Mason a stack of folders. “This should do it.” Mason shuffles through the folders and gives her an approving nod. “Marissa… you know you don’t have to go. You’re practically running the show here.”

Marissa scans the room and catches Nathan’s attention. “I’m sure. And… the commute’s been getting difficult. For me, at least. I apologize.”

“We haven’t met, by the way--” Nathan interrupts from the back. “Lightning.” He offers a hand to Marissa. “Johnny Lightning--”

“Get out of here, Nathan,” Mason firmly orders, and Nathan slips out with his hands up.

To the business at hand. “Anyway, I think with those four students, your special project can start. The staff will even out.”

“And any word from upstairs?” Just in case they’re against this.

She pauses to think about it. “Michelle pushed back a bit…” It’s safe to say that, by this point, Michelle knows a lot more than Mason, so he seldom gets in her way. “But she actually helped me pick two of the names.”

Mason nods, glad to hear it; he puts the other files away to make room. “We’re gonna miss you around here, kid. Michelle’s got big shoes to fill.”

“Thanks. You’re in good hands, I promise.” She has a lot to do with making up the bulk of their staff. She’d tell them she had other horizons to focus on, and she felt drained day in and out. The traffic between Belforde and San Val was also getting worse.

Mason smirks, offers a hand to her. She shakes it with a smile.

“Good luck,” she bids. Without further word, she walks to the door.

“Hey! I’m sorry you had to see that--” As she exits, Mason hears Nathan--waiting outside the whole time, apparently. “Have you seen a real-life tiger?!” Mason sighs, stands up and rushes outside to stop him, hoping to keep him in this room and this room alone.

――――

Mason cradles a sleeping Nathan back to his apartment. An hour in one bar, and two in another. Nathan was finishing a 6-pack in between…

What the hell is he gonna do with this man? Now he knows where he lives, and he won’t hear the end of it. He also couldn’t just leave him on the sidewalk...

Mason sets the man down on the sofa; upon dropping him, a piece of paper slips out of his hand. Mason picks it up, and scoffs.

“Katie -- 664-1122 xoxoxo”

He places it back in Nathan’s hand and lays it on top of his chest.

Better he wait until he wakes up… which might not be until tomorrow. He decides to get back to his work: the four folders Marissa parted with. The special project he’s been preparing for since they moved into the new building.

He lays the stack on top of the dining table and starts with the first name up top: Jamil Demons.

――――

“So walk us through what happened that day, Mister Demons.” An older lady speaks to a young man. He’s tall, with brown chocolate skin, his hair faded on the sides, and twisted at the top.

“Everything was fine…” He starts, “Music was blasting, I got Lil Baby playing, everybody is dancing, but it seems like at every party.--and I mean at every party, there’s someone waiting on my downfall.”

“What do you mean by downfall?”

“You never heard of Tee Grizzly? Like they’re waiting on me to fail. They don’t want to see me succeed.”

“And by not wanting to see you succeed, you’re referring to Mister Jensen, correct?”

“I mean, yeah… I guess so. He’s a hater in ma’ book.”

“So what happened after?”

“At the party? He just came up to me, talking about how I bagged his girl, saying things like--oh, bro you should know better, you can get any girl on campus but you picked mine ....” He squinted his face up in disgust. “Like bro, I don’t even know who his girl is! That’s the crazy part …”

“And is this when you punched him?” The lady writes down the notes in her book.

“Nah… It was a bit after that. We went back and forth, my teammates might’ve been instigating it a little bit; I had a little alcohol in my system, and he went for a low blow…”

“The low-blow involving your brother is correct?”

“If anyone knows me… My brother and my mama are off-limits. I’ll always advocate for my brother. He’s a victim of the system, and for some white boy to sit there and try to sucker me out. Call me and my brother some thugs? He had it coming…”

“As your lawyer, I think we can build you a solid case, Mister Demons.” She takes a brief pause. “I can guarantee you no jail time, but instead expect the judge to send you to a program.”

“A program?”

――――

“Mason, we can withdraw this one and hand it over to the proper authorities, if you want.”

Michelle Vu, the new program director, has asked to meet Mason about the first particular folder he saw. As Mason read his file, the name became more and more familiar…

A local big shot even back in high school, having won numerous championships and receiving multiple scholarships from some of the best programs in the country. He sat out for one year and finally had a chance to show everyone he can compete at the college level. Everything was going right for the kid... until his file was given to Mason.

“We’ll get unnecessary attention if this goes out. It might not motivate him to finish the program. Too many external factors.”

A nice kid--reminds him of himself when he was in high school, however long that was. Even though his team was beaten by San Valentino during senior year…

“This is your project, Mason. It’s your call.”

Come what may--the media, the fans, the lawyers--he’d like to see how Jamil will fare with a former cop.

“He’ll stay.”

――――

Another man who's been calmly seated throughout the whole conversation speaks up. “As dean, I can’t let this type of behavior go unpunished. Coach here has asked me to be lenient towards you. You’re a good student, but highly profiled and a special part of SVU, so I’m willing to make a call to the judge and see if I can get you into the program…”

“What do you mean? Y’all saying y’all can’t get me off anything? Everybody who's been in my situation would say I’m justified.”

“Calm down--Jamil,” another older man speaks. His coach. “It’s on tape, son. The NCAA has already gotten wind of it, and honestly, this is probably the best case scenario for everyone right now.”

“What the hell even is this program?” Jamil questions.

“I just know it’s for young-adults, son,” Coach says.

――――

“I don’t know where I went wrong with her, Mason.”

Mark had suddenly visited Mason; a surprising, but nonetheless welcome knock on his front door.

Mark sits with Mason in his dining room, hands on his forehead. “We thought she’d be done. She promised us she’d improve the next semester. But now...”

――――

Kristina wakes up in bed. Her head throbs, as if someone is tapping it from the inside and never stopping. “Fuck me…”

She turns to her roommate, whom she finds cooking breakfast. “Kenz… how--how much did I drink last night?” She must’ve passed out, or else she wouldn’t be asking this question. Not to mention she’s parched...

Her roommate gives her a sly smile. “Dunno, but your phone’s been ringin’ non-stop.” Her words take a few seconds to register to Kris and her throbbing head; when it does, she shuffles her hand through the beside to feel for it.

“Who’s Mark? He sounds hot.” Sizzle from the pan follows her roommate’s words.

“Mark’s my dad,” Kris responds, unamused. What could it be now, dad?

“Oh.” Right on cue, Kris’s phone vibrates loudly--a bit muffled. “Welp, that’s none o’ my business…”

Kristina sighs and gives more effort to her search, slipping her arm between the wall and her bed’s edge. Where the hell is the vibration coming from?...

She sighs once again and decides to finally stand up, but winces--scrunching her eyes. She drags her feet toward the pile of clothes that have collected at the edge of her bed and finds the vibration’s source there.

She looks at her phone, nearly squinting, and sees it. “Oh, shit. Shit, shit--Kenzie, you should’ve woken me up sooner!” 25 missed calls from “Mark”.

“Sorry,” she responds, turning off the stove. “I thought it was another stalker guy…” She walks over to her with a plate ready to go. Grilled cheese sandwich and a couple bacon strips. “Plus… you look cute when you sleep.” She chuckles at Kristina’s expense. By this point, Kristina couldn’t take her eyes away from her plate.

“Bitch, did you make me some?” And again, Kristina’s phone vibrates. Kenzie pulls a brow up and walks away to eat in peace.

“You should answer that first.”

Kristina rolls her eyes, throws on her slippers and starts making her way toward the courtyard. It wasn’t a long walk from her dorm room, and she could use the space.

Once she arrives, she lets the morning breeze wake her up. She takes a deep breath and stretches.

Finally, she answers the vibrating phone.

“Hey, dad.” Casual, a bit muffled by the wind--maybe too quiet… nonetheless, Kristina holds her breath.

“Kristina? Hey! You finally picked up!”

“Y-yeah…” She forgot to drink water. Kristina puts the phone down for a second and spits. “What’s up?”

“Kristina, we miss you so much! My goodness, you haven’t been calling us like you used to--” Yeah, because you call like every week, weirdo.

“Sorry about that--” Kristina decides to make her way back to her dorm room, letting him talk in the background without her listening much. She puts the phone back on her ear once she arrives and grabs a water bottle while at it.

“By the way, baby--what floor were you in again?” This causes Kristina to pause. “Uh, the first?”

“Cool--um, one moment, honey…” As he finishes this sentence, someone knocks at the door.

“By the way, I think someone’s at your door...” Kristina pauses--she turns to Kenzie, who raises a brow at her. She mouths, “Who’s that?”

The phone, by this point, was clasped between Kristina’s shoulder and ear, both hands on the water bottle. “Surprise!” she hears him say--from the phone, and right outside.

――――

“I think that’ll be good for her, Mark.” Mason had to read and reread the second folder’s name in his stack.

“I’m a busy father--I know this.” He sighs, deeply. Mason learned about him having to juggle between five publishing companies from their one and only meetup six months ago. “I never know what goes on with her life--but I didn’t know it was this bad…”

“We’ll sort it out,” Mason reassures him. “It’s our job.”

“She’s going to become a valedictorian, Mason. If you need to, go easy on her--”

“I can’t promise that.” As much as he wants to encourage Mark to be around for her more, Kris’s problem sounds like something her own father couldn’t deal with.

He hated seeing him like this.

――――

The night before…

The music blasts loudly. The smell of sweat and dried fragrance clouds the air. Neon blue-and-pink lights strobe across the dancefloor, as if moving with the bodies. A heart-thumping, bass-filled beat fills the nightclub, acting as its heartbeat.

Kristina continues to pound down shots--a few more and she’ll be ready to dance. Shakenzie watches, nursing her drink--a similar drink Kristina downed instantly earlier. Kristina couldn’t help but think what her dad would think of her now, having missed their weekly phone call an hour earlier.

Kristina starts to pull Kenzie toward the dancefloor, but she resists for a moment; foregoing the straw of her cup and drinking it in one gulp.

Since their first day of college, the two have been inseparable--any person on campus can attest. When they’re together, it’s always a party, and tonight is no exception.

The two quickly make themselves known on the dancefloor, bumping away to create room and attracting a few hungry eyes. Kristina notices this; she and Kenzie practically become partners, dancing upon each other.

She doesn’t want this night to end. And when it does? She’ll just repeat it again the next night.

――――

Mark and Mason have traded his apartment for a stroll in the waterfront. Mason figured Mark could use the ocean breeze.

“All that money I flushed away for her tuition--all those times I thought she valued her school more than us... I shouldn’t have let her go. I should’ve kept her close.”

――――

Kristina didn’t want to seem too obvious. She goes through a two-minute water therapy--drinking the bottle and splashing her face on the sink.

It’s been ages since he visited. When she’d return home, he wouldn’t be present--too busy attending meetings, trying to build whatever-the-fuck book company he had next… the only time he’d hear from him were those weekly calls. This is probably the first time she’s seen him since last semester.

She hangs up and does a final check of her “sober” look--mainly just cleaning the leftover glitter from her eyes. Mark once again attempts to call, but through video.

“What’s the hold up, honey?” he asks. Kris throws the phone at her bed, turning the camera to the ceiling. “Just getting ready, dad!” she says out loud.

“No worries! I already showed the dorm manager my ID--and he told me your room number! I’ll meet you up th--”Kristina shuts her phone off and tries to finish the routine in peace.

She hears a knock on her door. Shakenzie, looking through the peephole, couldn’t help but smile. “You know, I kinda see why your dad’s famous…” she says, turning to face her. “He’s got the ‘DILF’ thing down really well.”

“Bitch, shut the fuck up,” Kris retorts in a near-mutter. She fixes her hair up and takes a deep breath before opening the door.

“Kristina!” he greets loudly. “Oh, my goodness, sweetie--I haven’t seen you since spring break…” He pulls her daughter in for a hug.

“Dad…” she says, nearly forced. All she could muster right now is a smile. “How’re you doing? How’s classes?” She notices him surveying their dorm, his smile slowly fading… “Everything’s fine,” she tries to respond.

“Kristina.” Mark pauses at his daughter, then walks to her bedside table. Shakenzie, practically melding in the background, easily slips out through the front door. “Oop--got a phone call--” she says as she vanishes.

“What is this?” He shuffles through the numerous opened pill blisters, prescription bottles--a wine glass, a roll of cash--

Kris finally stops acting--the throbbing headache returns, and now she aches all over.

Mark takes a moment to absorb all of this. “Your mother was right.” He turns towards a confused Kris. “I didn’t believe her when she told me how you were barely passing the semester, but now?” He grabs a pill-blister to show his point. “Now I see why.”

“Wh-what are you talking about?”

“Kris…” He sighs and sits on her bed. “I came here to check up on you. I still know what happens in this school--d’you think I don’t know what happens here? This was my alma mater too.” He scoffs. “I was hoping to be proved wrong. But this, Kristina? I can’t believe this...”

Kristina folds her arms and struggles to keep eye contact. “So… am I in trouble or something? What’s gonna happen now?”

He stands up and approaches her. “Look… You clearly can’t handle this--all this. College. Living on your own. If I wanted to I could take away your full-ride right now. Whatever antics you’ve been doing outside of school--it can all stop.”

“That’s not fair! You’re taking things too far!” Her father steps back at this sudden show of anger. Kristina notices this. “I--I’ll stop, dad. I promise--I’ll st-study more--I’ll go to class!”

He pauses. “It’s my fault, honey. I’ll... I’ll fix this. I haven’t been around enough for you.” He looks away for a second. “I obviously can’t keep my eye on you the whole time. But I know someone who can.”

“W-what are you saying?”

“An ultimatum. A friend of mine works at an alternative program. You get help there, and you’ll be able to stay in this school.”

She scoffs. “... you think I’m an addict, dad?” Once again, she folds her arms.

“No, Kristina. It’s not that simple...” He holds her shoulders. “I just want what’s best for you. You’re going to be a junior next semester. I want you to make it to the dean’s list, like I did.”

“I don’t need none of that… Besides, who do you think you are?” She pulls away from him. “You leave for months. I only see you through phone calls. You’re never home with Mom… and then you show up here, pretending like you know me?”

“Look. Everything I’ve been doing up to this point--all my success--is all for you, Kristina. I want you to succeed, like me--”

“But I’m not you!” Kristina’s eyes shimmer.

“Kristina… please, understand me. I don’t want you to throw your life away.” She turns away from him. He takes his phone out and starts dialing.

“Fuck around or not,” he says firmly, and it forces Kristina’s attention to him. “Smoke all that mary-jane--take all those pills--you will show up to this program.” He puts the phone in his ear.

――――

“If she stayed, you think she’d be better off?”

Mark pauses. “Well I--”

“You’d control her every move, and she’d resent you more. She’s her own person, Mark. She has to find her pace in this life.”

“And how do you suppose you’ll play into this… this ‘pace’?”

Mason turns to him. “I honestly don’t know.” Something he didn’t think he’d say in his life. As a cop, he’d have all the answers.

But now, as a teacher in the program? He didn’t think he’d need more courage, facing those kids, sharing his experiences through the group experiences they’d do.

“But what I do know is that there are others like her out there.” A brave face--it’s usually what he puts on whenever he goes to tackle a case, apprehend a high-profile criminal, present a most-wanted list during a debrief--and now, for the kids in his program.

“Trust in us, Mark. She won’t be alone in this.”

――――

Smoke clouds the air before she takes another hit.

“What happened to Drew, anyway?” a voice says--hazy, and distant.

“You didn’t hear?” another voice responds--a girl’s.

“I swear--y’all didn’t leave each others’ side.”

“Look, it’s not my problem if he’d rather go to Belforde…”

“Ada, you need to just chill…. now you’re facing trial for what? You tried burning something cos’ he told you to?”

“What? He’d do it for me.” The girl named Ada pauses for a moment to think, her eyes blurry and reddened. “You know, maybe I should’ve just stuck with girls…”

The boy laughs. “Have you ever been with a girl?” His eyes were as red as her’s.

“I mean… what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She laughs--a bit slow and prolonged.

“Well…” The boy takes a pause to puff. “When’s your trial anyway?”

“Next week or something. They’re trying me as an adult.”

“Pffft--yeah, because you tried to burn down a house.”

“Eh...” She lets out a deep, relaxed sigh. “...yeah, I guess arson’s pretty bad. But it’s not like anything actually burned…” There was a hint of cheekiness in that last word.

“Seriously, you’re going to end up with even bigger charges if you keep that tone. SVU is so fuckin’ close I can almost taste it--”

“I’m not even going anymore.” He pauses to give her a miffed look. “Have you seen my grades?” She looks down and releases a breath of air. “It’s just a dance scholarship.”

A stream of silence befalls the room. “I should probably just sell drugs. Won’t need to graduate, wouldn’t need to worry about debt--wouldn’t need anything.”

“You wouldn’t even be able to drug deal if you wanted to,” he tells her. “You seen how skinny you look? I wouldn’t be surprised if a ten-year-old can pull an ‘Omar’ on your ass.” The boy chuckles, a bit dragged-out--Ada attempts to do the same, but she honestly doesn’t know why he’s laughing.

“Lance… you’re going to school to be a cop. You could barely run a mile in gym class.”

“Fuck you…” They both share a laugh. “I’ll find a way. I’ll be swole by the time I’m out of the academy.” The boy named Lance takes yet another puff, continuing to add haze to the room. He’d be giving this up.

“By the way, whose house was you even trying to burn?”

“Nobody’s. Knew it was empty. Drew joked around saying he was warm, and he had matches--so we figured, ‘fuck it. Why not?’.”

Lance scoffs. “You know how fuckin’ dumb you sound right now?”

“I don’t fuckin’ care!” Ada says it with pride. “Besides, I heard they’re trying to move me into some program. Says it could be good for me. Keep me away from all the bullshit I pull. Told me they could help me focus on dance, or whatever major I take. They… don’t want me dying in the streets, or some shit.”

“Oh, please. You’ll become a stripper before you graduate. You and me know that.” The two erupt in laughter.

――――

Back in his office, Mason concludes examining the third entrant’s folder. Charged for arson. Numerous misdemeanors ranging back from middle school.

He rubs his mouth and starts feeling his heartbeat fiercely. He never attaches himself to his students’ backgrounds this closely since the beginning, and he’s starting to regret it.

He dials Marissa’s office number on the phone. Maybe it’s not too late to cancel this--

The number you dialed is not in service.

She left, three days ago. He forgot.

He grabs the stack of folders and prepares to go to Michelle Vu’s office--the new program manager.

As he reaches the door, however, he stops.

What if she relapses?

What if he could never play football again?

What if she kills somebody?

――――

“What the fuck Melo!” A girl yells at him. “¡Ese fue un error tan estúpido!”

“Calm down Marline,” he responds, “You’re supposed to be my sister but you're out here yelling at me… Damn…”

Marline clasps her hands together. “Carmelo Esteban Santos…” she says slowly, “I told mamá that San Valentino would be so much better for you than Belforde. I give you a home, I give you a chance to attend college, I even helped pay for a damn computer so you can take those coding classes… and for some reason, you still choose to sell drugs! Puta madre...”

Melo can’t do anything but listen to his older sister scold him, and he could never get used to it; she was only two years older than him, but boy did she act much older. She was definitely mamá’s daughter.

“Shit, I know I fucked up. I’ve been trying my hardest. I can’t keep doing the 9-to-5 cooking them damn burgers...” He remembered being cursed out, being beat by a chancla by this very same person. And it hurt.

His sister steps up to his face. “So what do you expect me to do when I have a cop up here telling me to press charges against you?” He notices that her eyes and nose were reddish.

And he couldn’t help but listen intently; he’s usually zoned out at this point, but even he knew this was bad. It wasn’t the first time he had an accident with the law. He couldn’t count how many times he’d been in and out of juvie. He never had consistent friends in regular high school because of this.

He could tell she was hurt.

――――

Mason returns to his seat and shuffles the stack of folders in his hand. He pauses for a second before he takes the last entrant’s folder out.

Carmelo Santos.

He sets the other three folders down.

――――

“I’m so sorry, Mari.”

Estúpido! What the hell did you think will happen? You were riding that damn motorcycle around the neighborhood thinking you’re badass--carrying all that--that shit you still sell! You didn’t think for a second the police would stop you?” Her face is in her palms now. She’s tried, and tried again.

“Look, I’ll do my time--”

Stop.” She raises a finger and stares through his eyes--into his soul. “Look at me. I want you to hear me clearly. You know how many people I talked to just to get you into that college program? You’re gifted, hermanito. I don’t want you throwing your life away this easily.”

“Fuck… Look I want to do better, but look around us! We don’t scream money, Mari. How are we supposed to have the money to even afford a lawyer that’s going to help me win this case? I don’t win shit. I’ve never won anything. I’m just another one of ‘them’...” The ones forgotten by the system.

“You’re right, we don’t have money.” She’s standing up now, pacing. “But what I can do for you is make a call. There’s a program my friend Marissa mentioned to me a couple weeks ago. You--you don’t go to jail--but you’ll serve your time.”

“What? How the hell am I even supposed to get in some shit like that? That shit sounds corny as hell--”

“And so does prison!” She looks at him like he was stupid. “Get that through your thick skull, hermanito. I hope you’re ready to act because that’s the only way you’re going to convince that judge to give you a chance in that program.”

“Me? I don’t act.”

Pinche puto. You will. I don’t care if you’re twice my size or the most gangster of the Kingz. You’re going to damn well act as long as we’re blood.

――――

“Mason.” A knock on his office door wakes Mason up. Must’ve fallen asleep--and at the worst possible time.

“They’ll be here in 20 minutes,” Michelle tells him. Mason dismisses her and tries his best to straighten himself up; desk-side hair, a button-up with no tie… a great start, already.

His life begins here.

This feeling doesn’t come close to his graduation as an officer of the law. He knew what he wanted to do back then--but now?

He feels his heartbeat fiercely, almost escaping his chest. He takes the folders into a neat stack.

He shoots up from his desk and starts making his way to the door, when he remembers--he circles back to his desk and pulls the left-side shelf. There’s his back-up tie.

Mason does a rush-job of putting his tie on, praying he did it right without a mirror.

He takes one last deep breath and goes for the door.

Brave face, Mason. It’s a new day.

CreditsEdit

Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4

EPILOGUE
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