It was supposed to be a trip to the Grand Canyon, a trip I didn’t want to take. In the middle of summer it was like five thousand degrees in the desert—there’s no way I could survive that and two days in the car with my dad and the Stepmonster. All the Stepmonster ever wants to do is rag on me about everything. My hair—magenta with black streaks or black with magenta streaks, depending on your perspective. My tattoos—a Celtic armband, a daisy chain on my ankle, and a heart somewhere the Stepmonster will never see. And what a bad influence I am on Billy, my half brother—who’s only a baby for Chrissakes, and who probably thinks my tattoos are cartoons if he even notices them.
On top of it all, it was Labor Day weekend, the last days of freedom before junior year. It was gonna be a big hurrah. I play guitar in this band, Clod, and we were supposed to be in this Indian Summer music festival in Olympia with a bunch of really serious bands, the kind with record contracts. It was the best gig we’d ever gotten and a giant step up from the house parties and cafés we usually played. Of course, Stepmonster wouldn’t get that. She thinks punk rock is some kind of devil worship and made me stop practicing in the basement once Billy was born, lest I derange his baby soul. Now I can only practice in Jed’s basement, which Stepmonster also doesn’t like because Jed is nineteen and lives—gasp—with a bunch of people, none of whom are his parents.
So, I politely declined. Okay, maybe not so politely. Maybe my precise words were “I’d rather eat glass,” which only caused her to flounce off to Dad, who asked me in that weary way of his why I’d been so rude. I told him about the show. Once upon a time he had cared about things like music, but he just took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose and said it wasn’t up for discussion. We were going as a family. I wasn’t about to give up that easily. I tried all my tricks: crying, silent treatment, plate throwing. None of it worked. Stepmonster refused to discuss it, so it was just me vs. Dad, and I’ve never been good at giving him grief, so I had to give in.
I broke the news to my band. Erik, our stoner of a drummer, was just like, “Dude, bummer,” but Denise and Jed were really upset. “We’ve worked so hard—you’ve worked so hard,” Jed said, totally breaking my heart with his disappointment. It was true. Three years ago I didn’t know a C chord from an F, and now I was booked for a major gig, or should have been. Clod would be playing the Indian Summer Festival as a trio. I was completely crushed I’d be missing it—although it was kind of nice that Jed seemed sad about it.
I should’ve figured something was fishy when that Friday morning it was just Dad packing up the turd-mobile, the hideous brown minivan Stepmonster insisted they buy when Billy was born. Meanwhile, Stepmonster and Billy were nowhere to be found.
“God, she’s always late. You know it’s a form of control?”
“Thank you for the psychoanalysis, Brit, but your mom’s not driving with us.”
“She’s not my mom, and what’s the deal? You said it was a family vacation, which is why I had to go, had to miss Indian Summer. If they got out of it, I’m not going.”
“It is a family vacation,” Dad told me, shoving my suitcase into the back. “But two days in a car is too much for Billy. They’re going to fly down and meet us.”
I really should’ve known something was way fishy when we approached Las Vegas and Dad suggested we stop. Back when Mom was around, this was precisely the kind of thing we’d do. Jump in the car at a moment’s notice and drive to Vegas or San Francisco. I remember one night during a heat wave when none of us could sleep; at one in the morning we threw our sleeping bags into the car and drove into the mountains, where there was a perfect breeze. It had been ages since Dad had been cool like that. The Stepmonster had him convinced that spontaneity equaled irresponsibility.
Dad bought me lunch at the fake canals of the Bellagio and even smiled a little when I made fun of some of the fanny-packed tourists. Then we went to a cheesy casino downtown. He said no one would care that I was only sixteen and he gave me twenty bucks to plug into the slot machines. Our little trip was shaping up to be not so bad after all. But when I spied Dad watching me play the slots I couldn’t help thinking that he looked, well, empty, like someone had taken a vacuum cleaner and sucked out his soul or something. He didn’t even get excited when I won thirty-five bucks, and he insisted on pocketing the money to keep it safe for me. Again, a red flag I didn’t notice. Idiot-moron me, for the first time in ages, was just having fun with the Dad I’d been missing for years.
When we left Vegas, he turned quiet and broody, just like he was after everything happened with Mom. I could tell he was squeezing the steering wheel hard, and the whole thing was just so weird and perplexing. I got a little preoccupied with trying to figure out what was up with him, so I didn’t notice that we were no longer driving east toward the Grand Canyon, but had turned north into Utah. All I saw out the window was rust-colored clay cliffs, and they seemed Grand Canyon-y enough to me. When we pulled off at some small town just as the sun was going down, I figured we were stopping for the night at another motel, and at first glance Red Rock Academy looked like some crappy value inn: a squat, T-shaped, two-story beige stucco building. Except Red Rock was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, there was no pool, and the yard was filled with piles of dusty cinder blocks instead of trees. To top it off, there were two freakishly muscular Neanderthals patrolling the grounds.
“What is this?” I asked Dad, smelling the rat strong now.
“It’s just a school I want us to take a look at.”
“What, like a college? Aren’t we jumping the gun a little? I’m only starting junior year.”
“No, it’s not a college, more like a boarding school.”
“You want to send me to boarding school?”
“No one’s sending you anywhere. We’ll just have a look.”
“What for? I’m starting school next week, my school, back home.”
“That’s part of it, sweetheart, you haven’t been doing so well back at your school.”
“A couple of C’s. Big deal, Dad. It’s not the apocalypse.”
Dad rubbed his temples. “It’s worse than a couple of C’s, and it’s not just that. Brit, I’ve been feeling like you aren’t a part of our family anymore. You’re not you anymore, and I want to get you some help before…..” he trailed off.
“Whoa. You mean you want me to go to this place? Like when?”
“We’re just going to take a look,” he repeated.
Dad’s always been a crappy liar. He blushes and quivers, and I could tell he was full of it. His hands were shaking. The hairs on my arms stood on end. Something was really wrong.
“What in the hell is going on, Dad?” I yelled, and pushed open my car door. My heart was beating fast and hard now, the echo of it pounding in my ears. Then the two muscled freaks were on both sides of me, pinning my arms behind my back and pulling me away from the car.
“Dad! Daddy, what’s happening? What are they doing?”
“Please, please be gentle with her,” Dad was practically begging the goons. Then he looked at me. “Sweetie, it’s for your own good, Brit. Sweetie.”
“What are you doing, Dad?” I screamed. “Where are they taking me?”
“It’s for your own good, Brit,” he said again, and I could tell he was crying, which scared me even more.
I was shoved into a small, stuffy room, and the door was locked behind me. Hiccupping sobs, I waited for my dad to realize he’d made a terrible mistake and come get me. But he didn’t. I heard him talking to some woman. I heard our car start and then the sound of the motor faded. I started bellowing all over again, my face streaming with tears and snot and spit. I cried, but no one came for me. I cried until I could do nothing else but fall asleep. When I woke up, maybe an hour later, I’d forgotten where I was. I remembered with a start and with a clear understanding of why I was locked up. Stepmonster. She did this to me. My fear and sadness were nothing compared with my fury at her. And then there was something else. A sinking feeling of disappointment. In spite of it all, I’d actually been looking forward to seeing the Grand Canyon.
“Oppositional defiance disorder.” Red Rock had assigned me a shrink, and ODD is what she insisted I had. We were sitting in her dark office decorated with weird posters that I guess were supposed to be inspirational. One had a bunch of geese flying in formation and a caption that read, “With a plan in place, you can go miles.” Funny. I couldn’t go miles because they’d taken away my clothes and my shoes so I wouldn’t run away. I was wearing pajamas and slippers in the middle of the afternoon.
My shrink droned on, reading from a big, fat book that apparently contained all the secrets of the mind. “‘Often loses temper, often argues with adults, actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules, deliberately annoys people, blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior, is often angry and resentful, is often spiteful and vindictive…..’”
“Does that sound familiar?” she asked. She looked like a pilgrim. She was skinny and had a bowl haircut and was dressed in this high-necked ruffled blouse even though it was broiling in her office.
I was pretty out of it, as you can imagine. I’d been up all night, stuck in my little room until the goons came to deliver me to some equally burly nurse. I’d immediately christened her Helga. Helga confiscated my iPod and all of my jewelry, even my belly-button ring, ignoring my protests that the hole would close up, forcing me to get it re-pierced. After she’d put my jewelry in an envelope, she ordered me to strip and stayed there while I did. She put on gloves and started feeling me up under my armpits and in my mouth. Then she made me bend over while she looked down there—front and back. I’d never even had a gyno exam so this freaked me out beyond words and I started to cry. Helga didn’t even give me a tissue. She just kept on pawing around down there, looking for drugs I figured, even though that’s so not my scene. Pot makes me tired and alcohol makes me puke. No thanks.
Anyhow, by the time the shrink woman—Dr. Clayton—had started telling me about my disorder that morning, I was too out of it to point out that her ODD description summed up just about every teenager I knew. All I could say was, “I take it you heard all this from my Stepmonster,” at which she smiled and wrote more stuff down on her clipboard.
“Let me put it to you in terms you understand. Your grades at school have dropped. You are hardly present. You stay out all night. And when you do show your face, you’re as pleasant as a dark cloud.”
“I am not. And when I stay out late it’s because of shows. When you’re low on the totem pole, you get the two-A.M. slot. By the time we pack up our gear and get home it’s five A.M., but it’s not like I’m out partying all night.”
Dr. Clayton didn’t say anything, just shot me a Stepmonster-like disapproving look and wrote some more stuff down before continuing her list of my so-called offenses.
“You treat your body like a wall to graffiti on. You are rude to your stepmother, sullen to your teachers, unkind to your brother, and you seem to have some unresolved feelings about your mother.”
“Don’t you dare talk about my mother,” I said, surprised by how much like a growl my voice sounded. At the mere mention of Mom, I felt a chill grip me, and tears sprang to my eyes. I immediately blinked them back. “You don’t get to talk about her.”
“I see,” Dr. Clayton said, adding to her scribbles. “Well then, shall we go over the ground rules?” she asked, all sing-songy, like she was explaining a fun game. “We work on a rewards and levels system here. As a new student, you will start out in Level One. Level One is mostly an evaluatory stage, so the staff can get a sense of who you are and what your difficulties are. It’s also a chance for you to start proving yourself. There are very few privileges in Level One. You will remain indoors in an isolated room. You will do schoolwork in your room and have your meals there. You will leave only for individual therapy and to use the bathroom. To ensure you do no harm to yourself, you will be supervised at all times.