“You too.” Cassie was from Texas, strong like a ranch hand, and great to work near on the quarry.
“Red Rock, darling,” Bebe explained. “How’d you get here?” she asked again.
“My dad drove me. How else would I get here?”
“An escort, of course,” Bebe said.
“Like a date?” I asked. V laughed again, right in my face this time.
“Now don’t laugh, V,” Cassie said, giving me a sympathetic look. “More like a kidnappin’. That’s how they got me. They came for me in the middle of the night and hauled me away like a stray dog or somethin’. They even handcuffed me. I thought it was some kind of abduction, until I caught sight of my folks watchin’ from the window.”
“They did it because you’re…..gay.”
“Well, they think I am.”
“I’m bi. But don’t get all squirrelly on me. You don’t hit on every guy you meet, so it’s not like I’m gonna come after you.” She was right about that. I didn’t hit on any guy I met. I just crushed hopelessly after Jed.
“It’s nice to see that Cassie’s given you her introductory homophobia lecture. Forgive her,” V said. “She can’t help herself.”
“Yeah, well, half the girls in this place act like they think I’m checking them out all the time. And most of them ain’t even cute.”
“But you were kidnapped and brought here? That’s awful, Cassie.”
“Darling Brit,” Bebe interrupted. “It’s called an escort, and it’s standard operating procedure.”
“So your parents did that too?”
“Parent, singular. Dad’s out of the picture. And Mother, well there’s no Four Seasons within a hundred miles of this place. She wouldn’t be caught dead here.”
“Are your parents rich, Brit?” V asked.
“That’s none of your business.” I could tell that V’s were. She had that money smell to her.
“Don’t get all OC on me, newbie. I ask because if you have money, you’re screwed. Insurance pays for the first three months of your stay. If you’re poor, then suddenly at three months, boom, you’re in level Six and out the door. Cured by the miracle of Scam Rocks. But if your family has the money to keep footing the bill, that’s an entirely different set of circumstances. You could be stuck for life.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Virginia. Until you’re eighteen,” Bebe said. She looked at my panicked face. “When you’re eighteen, you can check yourself out.”
“How long have you all been here?”
“Six months,” Cassie said. “My parents aren’t rich, but they’re desperate to straighten me out.”
“Four months,” Bebe said. “But you can guarantee I’ll be here or at some other school a while. I’ve been at boarding schools for years. Of course, this is my first RTC.”
“God, newbie,” said V. “It’s a residential treatment center. They call it a school, but it’s a loony bin, a bogus, bullshit, behavior-modification boot-camp warehouse for unwanted misfit teens.”
Argh! Sometimes I really wanted to hurl a brick at V, to knock that all-knowing expression right off her face. My dad would never shuttle me off to boot camp. The thought of it made me want to cry. “My dad doesn’t want me warehoused!” I said defiantly.
“Right,” V said. “He just sent you here to rest up. Sure he did.”
“It wasn’t the dad,” Bebe pointed out. “She’s a Cinderella story. The stepmom sent her here.”
“I’d reckon your stepmom reads LifeStyle magazine,” Cassie said.
She did. There were stacks of them in our kitchen. She claimed she liked the recipes.
“Red Rock advertises in the back, promising quick results to cure the surly child,” Bebe said. “You can’t totally blame your stepmom, though. They make this place seem like a therapeutic Club Med.”
“That’s why they encourage the escorts instead of drop-offs. They don’t much appreciate parents seein’ this place in its skivvies,” Cassie added with a sly smile.
“That’s also why they monitor your mail. To preempt any complaints you may have,” V said. “There’s this whole section in the brochure warning parents to expect their kids to complain about how badly they’re treated here. Our lies are part of our sickness. It’s pretty clever. They really know how to cover their asses.”
“Oh my God, it’s a total gulag.”
“That is the first smart thing you’ve said, Brit.” V tapped me on the forehead. “Of course, every gulag has its secrets, escape routes, and codes.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are ways to subvert the power.”
“Patience, newbie. You’ll learn,” V said.
“All will be revealed,” Bebe promised.
Cassie put her hands together and bowed forward like a Tibetan monk who knew the secrets of the universe, and we all cracked up. It was the first time I’d laughed at Red Rock. But then the guards heard us having too much fun and separated us.
Out in the yard, you’d think no one was paying attention, but Bebe was right—there were eyes everywhere. The next time I had my appointment with Clayton, she immediately brought up V.
“I hear you are spending a lot of time with Virginia Larson,” she said. “You girls call her V, I’m told.”
“We sometimes build cinder-block walls together, and sometimes we take down those walls. If that’s how you define spending time.”
“Brit, you may think your quips are winning but they are only self-defeating. In any case, I would discourage you from getting close to Virginia.”
“But why? She’s Level Six. Isn’t she supposed to be a positive influence on me?” I still wasn’t sure whether V was friend or foe, but Clayton’s warning made me lean toward the former.
“Virginia is Level Six for now. But she has a way of backsliding, so, no, I don’t think I’d qualify her as a positive influence. Now, I need your word that you’ll steer clear of her, and if you give it to me, it will prove that you are responsible enough.”
“Responsible enough for what?”
“To get a letter from your father. I’ve had it a while but I didn’t think you were ready.”
What right did she have to withhold mail from my dad? I wanted to lunge across the desk and wring her skinny neck until her pilgrim head popped off. But I wanted the letter even more. I bit my lip. I was doing a lot of that lately, so much so that part of it was turning purple. I told her I’d avoid Virginia, so she handed me the letter, watching me expectantly. As if I would open it in front of her. No way. I held on to it until dinner.
Dear Brit:I hope this letter finds you well. Fall has arrived in Portland, and we’ve had rain every day. No sooner does it get light than it gets dark. Never my favorite time of year. The drainpipes have already clogged with leaves and flooded the living room again. Your mother has been busy taking care of the repairs.We are all fine. Billy misses you. He crawls to your room and likes to sit outside your door. It’s sweet.Your friends from the band were very upset by your absence. Jed and Denise have come over several times to look for you, and when I finally explained where you were, Denise grew quite angry. I suppose I understand. No one likes the ogre who breaks up the group. Jed asked if he could write to you, but I told him you were not allowed to receive mail from non–family members. He insisted that I give you a message about a song you wrote. In fact, he refused to leave until I swore on your health that I’d tell you that they would not forget the Firefly song. I don’t quite understand the big deal as you’re not in the band anymore, but a promise is a promise.I expect you are very angry with me and your mother, but I hope in my heart of hearts that one day you might understand that this was done from love.I know you can’t write me yet, but when you are allowed to, I hope you will.Happy Halloween.I love you,
Dad Up until that point, I’d been left out of the CT circles, but two days after I got my letter from Dad, Sheriff decided to lead group. And guess whose turn it was for the hot seat? Sheriff played it like a twisted game of duck, duck, goose, standing at the head of the confrontation circle, cocking an imaginary trigger with his finger, squinting like he was looking through a rifle sight. “Which one of you little girls thinks you can hide from the truth?” he asked in his gruff cowboy voice. “You? You? You?” he asked while he pointed at each of us. Then he stopped on me and motioned me to the middle.
“Why, Miss Hemphill, I don’t think we’ve heard from you. Word has it you got a letter from your papa. You got anything to say about that?”
I knew what I was supposed to say: that the letter made me angry, that I hated my father for dumping me here. It was standard CT hazing practice to start in with the obvious. The thing was, the letter had made me angry. Angry that Dad was making Red Rock seem like his decision, angry that he insisted on calling Stepmonster “your mother” as though saying it would make it true and erase what came before. And angry that he assumed that Clod was broken up, and I was out of it—as if that had been his grand scheme. But then, a tiny part of me felt bad for being mad. Because while I was furious with the After Dad, the one who’d let Stepmonster shove me off to this place, I could never fully forget my once-upon-a-time Before Dad. Before Dad was the gentle worrywart I’d grown up with, the heartbroken softy who’d fallen to bits when Mom went crazy. Before Dad was a pushover, only back then it was Mom he adored like a kid loves his new puppy. After Dad was a pushover for Stepmonster.
“It seems Miss Hemphill needs a little encouragement from you girlies,” Sheriff said. “Maybe one of you can get inside that angry little head of hers. My goodness, could she be so angry that she’s turning red right to the tips of her hair?”
I heard the girls in the circle titter. As if magenta streaks were the freakiest thing they could imagine. Whatever. Pink streaks are not a form of rebellion. Lots of my parents’ CoffeeNation friends had neon hair, and Mom used to help me dye my hair with food coloring when I was a kid.
Besides, I didn’t even care about what anyone said—even Sheriff, who tended to scare me as much as he infuriated me. I was too busy thinking about Dad’s letter—the little gift he’d inadvertently put in it. Because though “Firefly” is a song, I’m not the one who wrote it.
It’s always seemed like some sort of miracle that I got to be in Clod. Jed, Denise, and Erik were not only years older than me, they were all competent musicians—Jed on guitar, Denise on bass, and Erik on drums. I, on the other hand, was fifteen when I first tried out for the band, and to say I sucked at guitar at that point was a compliment.
Learning to play had been one of my Stepmonster-avoidance strategies. When she and Dad got married, she quit her job, so she was home all the time, redecorating the kitchen, talking on the phone to her sister in Chicago, making me feel like I no longer belonged there. So I did my best not to be there. I lingered after school. Spent hours nursing coffees at a greasy-spoon restaurant. Then one weekend I picked up a secondhand electric guitar and amplifier at a yard sale. I holed up in the basement, learning to play from a book, trying not to remember the days when I would’ve had twenty musicians lining up to teach me.
I’d been playing all of five months when I saw the notice at the X-Ray Cafe: PUNK-POP POWER TRIO SEEKS RHYTHM GUITAR PLAYER. Considering my lack of experience, I was pretty nervous when I arrived at Jed’s house to try out, and when I first laid eyes on him, my nerves turned to full-on jitters. Jed was tall and lanky with adorably sloppy brown hair that curled over the nape of his neck. His eyes were green, with a glint of warm brown in the middle. I’d been around cute rock guys all the time at CoffeeNation, but something about Jed totally flustered me. I turned away from him and busied myself plugging my guitar into my amp, but I was so distracted that I didn’t notice the amp was turned way up. Then I heard the feedback loop bouncing against the walls.