“I don’t recall asking you in.”

“I know, but just hear me out. Here.” I presented him the file the Sisters and I had amassed. It was almost as thick as his book.

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“What’s this?”

“Evidence. About Red Rock Academy.”

Henley guffawed. “Evidence? What, that they’re using dog meat in the tacos?”

“I know it seems funny to you, but I can assure you, there are some serious transgressions going on at the school. And yet no one seems to care. No one believes us.”

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“I’ve heard about your school. It’s for rich little drug addicts and runaways,” he said, eyeing the tattoo on my arm. “I’ve no interest in that.”

“Please, if you would just read this. Take a look. Evaluate it.”

Henley picked up the file, gave the folder a cursory glance and handed it back to me. “Stop wasting my time, kid. It’s past your bedtime, no more games.” He started to walk toward the kitchen.

“Why won’t you just look at it?” I shouted. “Why won’t you give us a chance?”

“I gave you a chance last time by not calling your bloody principal. And I’m giving you a chance now. A chance to leave before I call the police.”

“Right, because authority is always right, Mr. Henley? Were they right in the Alabama town you grew up in, when they burned down black churches? Were they right when they bombed women and kids in Vietnam? Were they right when they locked up South African freedom fighters?”

He stared at me, his ears turning red. “You can’t be comparing yourself to those people. You simply cannot.”

“I’m not. I know it’s not that bad. But it’s still wrong. And no one seems to care about it because we’re kids and our parents sent us to Red Rock. As if adults don’t screw up, too!”

“Look, I feel your pain. But I’m not your man. Leave now.”

“Wasn’t it you who said that the only way to guard freedom was to question those in power? That’s what you said when you won your first Pulitzer. Doesn’t that hold true anymore? There’s something happening in your backyard, and it’s bad, and you’re the only one who can help change it. We need someone to help us!” I was yelling now. “I read what you wrote. I know all about you. You used to care about injustice. Please, please listen to us.”

I threw the folder on the floor, and before Skip Henley could call the cops on me, I turned around and ran.

“It’s a miracle you didn’t get caught,” Cassie said. I’d cornered her, Bebe, and Laurel in the cafeteria the next morning.

“You are pretty lucky,” Laurel said. “V’s break-in still has everyone really nervous. I’m amazed you made it out. I’m amazed you came back.”

“I know. Maybe I should’ve kept going. Then the whole thing wouldn’t have been such a bust.”

“Don’t worry, Brit. I’m outa here in no time and I’ll find someone who’ll listen.”

“Thanks, Cass. But all that evidence. Everything we risked our butts for. It’s all gone.”

“And you’re sure he didn’t bite?” Laurel asked.

“No way. You should’ve seen the way he looked at me. Like some dumb little girl. He thinks we’re a bunch of spoiled brats, and what’d I do? I went and had a temper tantrum in front of him. Played right into that one. He thinks we’re a joke.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Cassie said. “You gave it your best shot.”

“One day the tables will be turned, dears—all these old farts will be needing our help,” Bebe said. “We’ll let them rot while we get pedicures.”

A week after my field trip to Henley’s, V pulled a little escape trip of her own, showing up in the quarry one afternoon and walking right up to us.

“Hey cowgirl, how’d you get sprung?” Cassie asked.

V looked at me and smiled. “I have my ways,” she said.

“Always with the mystery, this one,” Bebe said.

“Cassie’s the real Houdini. What do you have, a month left?”

“Nah, three and a half weeks,” Cassie said, her head bowed.

“Don’t tell me,” Bebe said, “you’re sad to be going?”

“Not quite sad, but a dash mixed up. It’s just, I’m goin’ home.” Cassie paused. I had never seen her look so defeated. “You gotta understand,” she continued, “where I come from, they invented redneck there. And if you’re so much as suspected of being different, it’s like you’re always in danger of getting found out, just waitin’ for the ‘Gotcha!’”

“That sounds like here,” I said.

“Nah, it ain’t the same. Here we’re surrounded by so many people that don’t fit in that we all fit in. Like when y’all met me.” Cassie smiled. “None of y’all even flinched knowin’ I might be g*y. The punch line is that messin’ with some girl got me sent here, to be fixed. And now that I’m here, my secret’s out and I don’t feel so alone.”

“You willing to risk one final breakout?” I asked. “We want to send you off in style.”

“Sure, why not? My parents have already booked my flight home, so there’s no backpedaling now.”

“There’s supposed to be a big meteor shower in two nights. I thought we could sneak out, watch it. It might be a while before we’ll all be together again.”

“That sounds like a nice way to say farewell,” Cassie said.

“Good, then it’s settled. Two o’clock by the infirmary door. We won’t go far. Just outside, away from the lights.”

As we drifted apart, V called to me.

“I heard what you did,” she said.

“Fat lot of good it did.”

“Huge lot of good it did. You were seizing your destiny.”

“Thanks. Are you seizing yours? Is that how you escaped Level Two?”

“I told Clayton that I was planning on checking myself out soon. Not right away. I need to work up to it. But I told her I’d walk out today if they didn’t quit with the penal crap. And you know them, anything to keep collecting the cash. I’m on permanent Level Six until I leave.”

“That’s a step, I guess.”

“That’s all we can do, Brit. Take steps. Take enough of them and suddenly, you’re somewhere.”

Chapter 27

It was a beautiful night, the sky black as a patch of velvet, the stars like diamonds, with meteors exploding and fishtailing across the heavens. We sat out on a rock, me, V, Bebe, and Cassie. Although V began our meeting with a call to order of the Divinely Fabulous Ultra-exclusive Club of the Cuckoos, it didn’t feel like that anymore. Maybe it was the air of finality. Martha was home. Cassie was leaving soon. V would be, too. There was no date yet, but it was going to happen. That night, V told the Sisters her secret. And I told them mine.

It wasn’t over yet. Bebe and I were still stuck at Red Rock, still had to find a way out of the level gauntlet, but for one night at least, under a hail of flaming stars shooting across the galaxy zillions of miles away, none of that mattered. We weren’t Sisters in Sanity. We were just sisters.

Chapter 28

There were two daydreams I used to nurse when things got really bleak. In the first, Jed was here. He’d come back to get me, to take me away. And in the second, the world finally wised up to Red Rock—and the powers of good came and shut it down.

Let me tell you, the powers of good, when they finally show, can look an awful lot like scary storm troopers.

“This is a raid. Girls, please get your clothes and leave the building. I repeat: Please take your belongings, go to the parking lot, and give your name to Agent Jenkins.”

“Huh?” I rubbed my eyes. It wasn’t light out yet, wasn’t time for roll call. What was going on? I sat up in my bed, and two guys with identical buzz cuts and mirrored glasses were in the doorway. I yanked my blankets around me.

“Please get dressed, take your personal effects, and move to the parking lot.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“FBI. This is a raid. No need to be frightened. You’re all safe.”

“What the…..?” Missy asked.

I hopped out of bed and looked out the window. There were twenty or more cars lined up, lights flashing. My heart started thumping.

“What’s happening?” Missy asked. For the first time, she didn’t act like my master. She looked scared.

“I don’t know. I think they’re raiding the school.”

“Who is?”

“Federal agents.”

“Why would they do that?” she asked tearfully. She looked so upset that for a second I felt bad. Only for a second.

I got dressed and scrambled outside. V, Cassie, and Laurel were already congregated in a circle, huddling against the early-morning chill.

“Did you know about this?” I asked V.

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Five minutes later, Bebe came bounding out, a huge grin on her face. “Oh my God, Brit. Did you make this happen?”

“I have no idea what’s happening, let alone who made it happen.”

We all just stood there and watched as 187 sleepy-eyed girls in matching Red Rock polo shirts filed out of the building. About fifty agents coated the place like ants on jam. After about an hour, a lady came around and checked all our names off on a list. “Please remain here. We will have breakfast coming for you shortly. Please do not leave the premises.”

A while later, a truck showed up and a couple of agents went around distributing donuts, orange juice, and coffee. Coffee. It was like nectar, the taste of freedom. None of us knew what was going on, but to me coffee signified our return to the real world.

We kept asking what had happened, but no one would tell us much. Just that it was a raid. Red Rock was under investigation.

The morning wore on, and we stayed outside. We all sat in a big clump under the trees, drinking the bottles of water the agents had passed out to us. The lady with the clipboard came around again, telling us to stick around, that our parents had been notified, and those of us who were not picked up by nightfall would be bused into town until arrangements could be made.

“Oh my God, darling. We are getting out of here,” Bebe gushed.

Cassie laughed. “Just my typical luck when I was a week shy of leavin’ on my own steam. Still, I’m glad for y’all, for all us girls.”

None of us could talk much. We just watched, riveted to the spectacle, unsure if it was really happening. Around lunchtime, parents started to arrive, hysterically racing to their kids, grabbing them in big hugs, like you always see parents do on the TV news after a school shooting.

It was Pam, whose dad lived in Vegas, who showed us the article. A three-page piece in the national newsweekly American Times magazine titled “Disturbing Behavior.” Written by none other than veteran journalist Skip Henley. It was all in there and so much more: our stories, the insurance fraud, the stuff about Sheriff, quotes from former students, as well as commentary from psychiatrists on how ineffective and damaging Red Rock’s brand of therapy could be. Bebe, V, and Cassie read over my shoulder.

After we’d finished, Cassie looked at me and whistled. “Well, would ya look at that?” she said.

“Darling,” Bebe said. “I. Am. Speechless.”

So was V. She just looked at me, her expression saying it all: Did you do this? Did we do this? How did we do this?

Only later would we find out the whole story, about how Martha’s family had filed a complaint with their congresswoman, who had spearheaded a separate investigation. That investigation had been working toward a bust. That bust had been jump-started once Henley’s article appeared. Sheriff was already being investigated for mail fraud. Only later would I hear that Henley had run after me, not to chase me out of his house, not to shoot me, but to slow me down so we could talk. When I’d beaten him to the truck, he’d gone back into his house, picked up the file, and gotten to work.

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