“He quit his job in protest. It was a major story. And he’s been retired ever since. Occasionally he gives a talk about world affairs at the local college,” Ansley said, “but mostly he just raises horses at his ranch.”

“He sounds perfect,” I said.

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“He’s notoriously cranky,” Ansley warned.

“Get me his number.”

A week later, my hands quaking, I called the number Beth had given me. It was one o’clock and I knew I’d probably wake him, but better Henley than the guard. By the gruff tenor of his voice, however, it was clear that even though he was awake, calls at this late hour were not okay.

“Mr. Henley,” I began, my voice quavering.

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“Who the hell is this, and why in God’s name are you calling at this hour?”

“I’m sorry it’s so late. My name’s Brit Hemphill. I’m a student, well more like an inmate, really, at Red Rock Academy. It’s near you.”

“Is this a prank? I’m hanging up.”

“No, please don’t hang up. I go to this school, it’s really a boot camp for teens. They do horrible things here, really awful. I thought you might want to do a story.”

“I’m retired. Leave me alone.”

“I know you are, but I just don’t—I don’t know what else to do. Someone has to listen to us,” I said, my voice breaking off.

“You damn kids. Get a life.” Then he hung up.

I snuck back into my room, climbed into bed, and threw myself a pity party. Screw Skip Henley. No one was ever going to listen. But as I was feeling sorry for myself, I heard Jed’s voice in my head, and I so wanted to be the rock star he seemed to think I was. That’s why the next night, I called again.

The second time, at least, Henley listened to my spiel. And then he laughed. “Kid, do you know who I am?”

“Yeah, you’re famous for covering a bunch of stuff in the seventies, right?”

“Do your homework, kid. I’ve covered wars, revolutions, assassinations. And you want me to tell the world about a bunch of whiny rich kids who think their school’s too tough?”

“It’s not like that.”

Henley chuckled again. “Maybe next I can do an exposé on the price-gouging of lip gloss.” Then, still laughing, he hung up.

This was going to be tougher than I thought. But I wasn’t about to give in. I called another meeting with the Sisters and explained what I’d been doing.

“You’re crazy, darling. And I love you for it,” Bebe said.

“This does kick it up a level,” Cassie said.

“I know, but it’s not working. He laughed at me.”

“Never trust anyone over thirty,” Cassie said. “I’m beginnin’ to think those are words to live by.”

“But I feel like he’s our best hope,” I said. “I mean, what are the chances of a big-time investigative journalist living out here? If we can just get him to believe us. To make the case.”

“So make the case,” V said. She looked at me with that same mix of exasperation and helpfulness she had back when I was on Level One and was stubbornly refusing to tell Sheriff that I was ready to face myself.

“How?”

“My dad had a bunch of hotshot journalist friends,” V said. “All they care about is a juicy story. They can smell it like blood. You’ve just got to show him it’s a good story.”

I looked at her. She was offering help, but there was that coldness again. It had been that way since she’d gotten off Level Two, since I’d come up with my plan, since she’d told me to hold on to the pass key and said it was time for me to be the keeper of the flame for a while. I couldn’t tell if she knew that I was still kinda mad at her or if she was jealous that it was me leading this charge and not her. Maybe she didn’t want there to be any charge at all.

Another night, another break-in. This time it was the computer room, where Level Sixers were allowed to send email. Only staff knew the log-in code. Ansley and Beth had told me that when they were at Red Rock, the code had been—oh so imaginatively—teenhelp, and I was sure they would’ve changed it. But never underestimate the laziness of Red Rock. Because when the password box popped up and I typed in TEENHELP—expecting the computer to immediately crash or a siren to go off—Internet Explorer opened up and I heard the modem dial and connect. Bingo.

I spent almost an hour googling. First I looked up Skip Henley. I was so embarrassed. Not only had he done a bunch of amazing stories in the seventies, but since then, he’d covered lots of human-rights stuff, the death squads in Nicaragua, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He was as famous a journalist as Walter Cronkite, and I’d disrespected him. That wasn’t going to happen again.

Then I googled Red Rock. I didn’t get much, mostly the school’s own website. So I googled Dr. Clayton and then Bud “Sheriff” Austin, and found nothing. I was about to give up, but then I googled “Austin,” “former sheriff” and “boot camp” and got this, from the Billings Gazette:

BOYS’ BOARDING SCHOOL CLOSED FOR INVESTIGATION

A local school has been shut, amid allegations of child abuse and civil rights infringements. Authorities say that they are continuing to investigate Piney Creek, a private boarding school that bills itself as a boot camp for out-of-control teen boys. Former students and local activists have long claimed that the school’s tactics, including restraining students with handcuffs, placing them in isolation, and withholding food, amount to cruel and unusual punishment. “These young men have not been charged with any crime by the criminal justice system, and yet they receive fewer rights and harsher treatment than they would in prison,” says local lawyer Sharon Michner, who represents a family suing the school after their son suffered scabies and malnutrition. “There is an astonishing lack of state or federal control of these institutions, and that leads to widespread abuse.”

Piney Creek principal Arnold “Bud” Austin, a former sheriff, declined comment, but the school issued a written statement. “With school shootings and teen violence up, we need to broaden our arsenal in reclaiming young people who have gone down the wrong path. We have helped hundreds of young men, and the allegations made against Piney Creek are baseless.”

Police Chief Richard Hall said the school will remain closed and the students will return to their families or transfer to new schools until the investigation is complete.

I found two more articles from the Gazette, one announcing that the investigation was complete and the school was closed for good, and another noting that Michner’s case had been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. After that, I googled “Arnold Austin” and “boot camp” and hit pay dirt. Turned out, Sheriff had been in charge of at least three other schools, one in Idaho, one in Utah, and one in Jamaica. Both the Idaho and the Utah schools had been shut down by authorities.

How was it that Piney Creek was shuttered but Red Rock could still be open? How was it that Sheriff’s schools had been deemed abusive over and over, but he was still in business? I didn’t have any answers, but I did know one thing: I had a story. And Skip Henley was going to have one too.

When I crawled back into my room that night, Missy was wide awake in her bed.

“Where have you been?” she asked, shocking the hell out of me. The one good thing about having her as a roommate was that she was a deep sleeper.

“Bathroom,” I answered.

“For forty-five minutes?”

“I ate the creamed chipped beef tonight,” I lied, clutching my stomach. “Big mistake.” Missy glared at me. “If you don’t believe me, you can go to the bathroom. It still stinks pretty bad in there.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she harrumphed before rolling over and going back to sleep. I’d been dodging so many bullets with all my sneaking around that week, I couldn’t help but worry that my luck would run out.

The next day on the quarry, I told the Sisters what I had found. V, who I’d thought would be more supportive, just said, “Well done.” I wasn’t sure she meant it. Bebe, Cassie, and Laurel, on the other hand, practically peed with excitement.

“Now Skip’s got to hear you out,” Cassie said. “You’ve hit the mother lode.”

“You did some pretty good digging there,” Laurel added.

“Pretty good?” Bebe swooned. “You’re brilliant, and so sly.”

“Well not that sly. I almost got caught by Missy. I don’t know how much I can risk sneaking out again. I can’t have diarrhea every night.”

“Gross, darling,” Bebe said. “That’s a tad too much information.”

“I think I should wait a week until I try contacting Henley again,” I said.

“You could get one of us to help,” Laurel suggested.

“Oh please, let me,” Bebe offered. “Hilary’s so dumb I can tell her anything. I’ll join the Mission Impossible and call good old Skip myself. Besides, it would feel nice to do something for Martha. It has to beat being miserable and waiting for news.”

“I know. All the silence is driving me crazy. Any word?” I asked.

“Nothing yet. Status quo,” V said. “She’s still in the hospital, as far as I know.”

We were all silent for a second, thinking of Martha. “Okay, then,” Bebe announced. “So who is this geezer I’m supposed to charm?”

“Skip Henley. He’s a really big-time reporter,” I said. “And you don’t need to charm him, just convince him.”

“I’ll do both. I’ll have him eating out of my hands. You know I was interviewed by Joan Rivers with Mother? Once you’ve tussled with that broad, you can handle virtually anyone.”

As it turned out, Bebe couldn’t handle Skip Henley. She called him two nights later and before she could even start with her evidence, he interrupted her.

“God, he was so rude,” Bebe complained. “At first I thought he was going to help, because he asked the name of the school and the principal. So I told him, and he growled into the phone that if I ever called again, he would alert the school. Then he started railing on about what a bunch of—let me see if I can remember it—‘spoiled, entitled, apathetic babies,’ our generation was, how we never get up in arms about anything except the latest Xbox game. Like I’d waste my time with video games. Please.” Bebe stopped. She turned to me. “Sorry Brit, but I think we’re barking up the wrong tree with this guy. He’s a bitter old pill. Worse than Joan.”

“It was a valiant effort. Too bad it didn’t work out,” V said. I’d never have thought that she, of all people, would give up on us so quickly.

“Yeah, Brit,” Bebe added. “It was a good try. But it’s really an impossible deed you’re trying to accomplish.”

I was disappointed by how readily the Sisters were all giving up, but not all that surprised. Red Rock was designed to make us doubt ourselves. It was how the school broke us, got us to submit to the program. But I wasn’t ready to give up. I needed to talk to someone who believed in me. I needed to talk to Jed.

Except that I hadn’t heard from Jed since the night I left that stupid message on his machine. After a few days, the excitement I’d felt at admitting I loved him was clouded by doubt. What if I’d blown it, said too much, shown my hand? I wasn’t much of a game player with guys, and Jed and I had been such good friends that it hadn’t occurred to me to be anyone but me. I didn’t totally regret what I’d done because I believe in telling the truth, but I tried to imagine what it must have been like to get that message—hearing my desperate voice in the dark. After two weeks and no word from Jed, I figured I had my answer. I’d over-stepped, scared him. Sure, Jed was amazing, but he was also a guy, and guys are skittish about love. Aren’t they?

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