May turned into June. I turned seventeen and told no one. I got a card from Dad and hoped to get one from Jed, until I realized he didn’t know when my birthday was. The days were so hot, over a hundred degrees. Sheriff even canceled backcountry therapy. A kind of tired malaise settled over the Sisters. Restrictions had eased, but not enough so we could really hang out. The big plan had stalled. It was all just blah. The only bright spots on the horizon were two pieces of good news we got in early June. First of all, Cassie’s graduation date was set for August. And then there was Martha.
Martha had recovered and was going home. Best yet, her mom and dad were bringing her by Red Rock to get her stuff, get checked out, and say good-bye to us. I was surprised that they were going to allow her and her parents on campus and shocked when Bebe, V, Cassie, and I got pulled from lunch to attend a private farewell meeting in the front parking lot. And then I was completely speechless when I saw Martha: She had lost at least thirty pounds.
After we all hugged and wiped our eyes, Martha laughed. “Can you believe it? After everything, Red Rock accomplished what it was supposed to. Made me skinny.”
“It’s true, darling, but you look awful!”
“Bebe!” V scolded. But as usual, Bebe was just telling the truth. Martha had big, dark circles under her eyes, and her rosy complexion had a sallow tint. Her skin also seemed to kind of hang off her where she’d lost the most weight.
“Give me a break. I was in a coma. They tried to tell my mom that I was anorexic. But she knows me too well, knows how much I like to eat. I had kidney failure caused by severe dehydration. Who knew getting hot could do such damage?” Martha said, beckoning us all into a huddle. “Mom’s furious at this place,” she whispered. “She yelled at Sheriff. She’s got them scared, so they’re kissing her butt. That’s why they let me have this meeting with you, to say ’bye.”
“Your mom’s not the only one,” Cassie said, pointing to me. “This girl was livid. She’s been on a campaign to get this place closed down.”
“Yeah, except it kind of fizzled,” I said.
Martha stared at me, her eyes shining. “Don’t give up, Brit. Don’t. If anyone can do it, you can. Please don’t give up. Please?”
“Okay. Okay. Take it easy,” I said.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you guys kept me going in here and I can’t bear the thought of leaving you behind.” Martha started to cry.
“Darling, what is it?” Bebe asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel so, I can’t explain it, like everything’s whooshing around inside me. I’m so sad to leave you.”
“You’re not leaving us,” I said. “You’re going home. There’s a difference.”
“Yeah. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do back home?” Cassie asked.
“I don’t know. Eat. My mom’s dying to put some weight back on me. Isn’t that hilarious?”
“She wants you fat again?” Bebe asked incredulously.
“She wants me healthy.”
“We all do,” V said.
“Thanks, V. So everything’s okay with you all. I mean you and Brit aren’t still mad at each other?”
“Brit and I were mad at each other?” V asked, raising her eyebrows. “Or was it that Brit was mad at me?” she said, giving me one of her intense, I-can-see-your-soul stares.
“Oh God, I put my foot in it. As usual. I’m sorry—please don’t fight. It makes me sad.”
“Everything’s fine, Martha,” I said.
“Please get out soon. So you can come visit me. I’ll make you icebox cake,” Martha said, smiling at me and Bebe.
“And lemonade, darling.”
“And lemonade. And I’ll catch you a firefly.”
“No, don’t catch it. Just say hi to one for me.”
Martha’s mom tooted the horn. “Okay. I think I gotta go now. I’m going to miss you guys so much.”
“We’ll miss you, too. But we’ll see you again,” V said. “You can bet on that.”
“Brit’s gonna make sure of it. Aren’t you?” Martha said.
All I could do was agree. We hugged Martha one last time and watched as she climbed into the back of her parents’ rental car and zoomed back to her old life.
After Martha left, I felt renewed in my purpose. But I found it hard to get anyone else on board. Bebe was over Henley. She now preferred to organize a letter-writing campaign to her senator. V was still acting weirdly aloof about the whole thing. And Cassie—well, she was off in her own world concentrating on Laurel and her own pending graduation. I couldn’t blame her. She was so close to freedom. Why blow it? Only V would do that.
Henley’s reaction had taken a bit of the wind out of my sails too, but I wasn’t going to give up. I just needed a new game plan. The Sisters were convinced Henley wasn’t going to come around, but I still thought he was our best hope. I needed a pep talk, so I decided to risk another outing to call Jed. It was after two o’clock in the morning, but he picked up right away.
“Yeah, it’s me. Um…..how are you?”
Jed let out a long sigh on the other end of the line. I could practically see him smiling and shaking his head, could picture the exact curve of the lips I’d kissed. “I’m better now. But you had me worried. I’ve been in Massachusetts the past two weeks and I came home to your one message and nothing else. I thought you freaked out on me or you got into trouble. Are you in trouble?”
“I’ve pretty much been in trouble since I got here.”
“Wanna tell me about it now?”
And so I did, as fast as I could, because the clock was ticking. I told him about what had happened after I’d slipped out to meet him. I told him what happened to Martha and what I’d discovered and what I’d tried and failed to do.
“I don’t know, Jed. This Henley guy, he’s a jerk, but he’s the real deal. I feel like if I could just show him what’s happening here, show him what I’m really trying to do…..”
“Do it,” Jed interrupted.
“Don’t give up. Do whatever it takes to get that place shut down. I’ll help you if I can. But I think you’re all you need, Brit. It’s up to you.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, and besides…..”
“I need you to get out,” he said, his voice softening. “The real you. I’ve been carrying on with the fantasy for years now.”
“Don’t you mean months? It was only March when we, you know, got together…..”
“I mean years.”
“Oh.” I just sat there like an idiot, smiling into the phone.
“Can you call me again?”
“Maybe, but they probably go over the long-distance bills with a magnifying glass.”
“Call collect then. And get out of there. Clod needs you. Seriously. If you don’t get out of there soon, I’m going to turn into a total sap. You’ll understand when you hear the songs I’ve been writing. All ballads.”
“Yikes. I’m surprised Erik and Denise haven’t staged an intervention.” I paused, took a breath. “I miss you.”
“Me too. And Brit?”
“I love you, too.”
Okay, maybe he wasn’t a typical skittish boy after all.
The Sisters and I met a few nights later, and I laid it out for them. I told them I wanted to give it one more shot with Henley, to present him with the whole story. He didn’t even know about Sheriff’s history, and there was probably plenty more dirt where that came from. But it was up to us to unearth it. After all, who knew Red Rock better than we did? We would sneak out files, snoop through offices, catalog every inmate’s diagnosis. And then, when we had an airtight case, we’d take it to Henley. He’d believe us. He had to.
“I don’t know why you’re so hung up on this old journalist,” Bebe said. “He’s such a rude man.”
“I’ve just got a feeling. I mean, if you knew the guy’s history—he’s done all this work to expose injustice. He’s got to have a big heart under all that gruffness, or at least he used to.”
I explained what I felt we needed to do. Cassie, because she was getting out soon, would have to have the least risky job. She’d do an informal survey, find out what every girl at Red Rock was in for. How many sexual deviants, how many kleptos, druggies, or none of the aboves. And how many girls were on medication.
“Be careful, Cassie. Don’t take any risks.”
“I got it covered, Brit.”
I assigned Bebe to get into the medical files—find out how many girls might have had suspicious “accidents” like Martha’s or been sick. We needed a list of cases that stunk of typical Red Rock staff neglect.
I gave V what I thought was the second-hardest job: Getting the goods on the staff and finding out how many of them didn’t even have the minimum qualifications to dole out advice and meds. She rolled her eyes. “Please, that’ll take me all of five seconds. What else you got?”
“The insurance part. If we can prove that Red Rock ‘cures’ girls as soon as their insurance runs out if their families can’t keep paying, that will help make our case.”
“Done. And what are you doing?”
“I’m going to break into Clayton’s office. Get our files. Compare notes. See if they’re making stuff up. And I’m also going to go online, or have Jed do it, to find some graduates who can tell their own torrid tales. I’ll bet there are a lot of girls out there who would happily spill their guts about this place.”
“It all sounds a mite dangerous,” Cassie said.
“I’m afraid so, darling,” Bebe agreed. “You know I love the whole Mission Impossible idea, but however are we going to get access to all this stuff? You act like we can just waltz around wherever we please.”
I was beginning to understand that we could do just that. I didn’t want to risk the girls getting busted, especially Cassie, but in my few nights of sneaking around, my confidence had been growing. Red Rock had us all so scared, so convinced that they were lurking around every corner, that we all stayed in line (at least most of the time). But the reality was that Big Brother was mostly in our heads. Red Rock had some half-assed security system, and one measly nap-loving guard at night. The Sisters had been sneaking out for meetings for almost a year and no one was any the wiser. I’d been caught when I broke out, but that wasn’t because any of the staff had nabbed me so much as that someone on the outside had seen me in my uniform and called Sheriff. I was starting to realize that the most effective restraint at Red Rock wasn’t the locked doors or the alarms, but our own fear. And only we could unlock that. I tried to explain that to the girls, but at the same time, I didn’t want my theory to be their downfall. Cassie and Bebe still looked a little dubious, but it was V who stepped up and saved me.
“Brit, congratulations. You have just discovered the secret of this place.” She had a sad look on her face, but I could see that it was tinged with pride.
“I have?” I asked.
“You have. The only thing we have to fear—okay, maybe not the only thing, but the biggest thing we have to fear, with props to FDR—is fear itself.”
Bebe took in a gulp of breath. “Oh, what the hell. I’ll infiltrate that infirmary if I have to break my leg to do it.”
“I’m in too,” Cassie said. “And I’ll get Laurel to play sidekick. She works in the office and can make us photocopies if we need ’em.”