“Miss Wallace,” Sheriff called. He had his rifle sight pointed at Martha, my overweight roommate, and I immediately felt my stomach lurch. No one got it in CT like the fat girls, and Sheriff, a man beyond clueless to the travails of being young, female, and overweight, was notoriously cruel. What’s worse was that the whole room was amped up with unspent energy because I hadn’t given up a thing. I knew Martha was going to take the beating I should have.
“Hey, lardass. Why do you eat so much?”
A couple of the girls were oinking like pigs. Sheriff was wearing a self-satisfied grin. He liked to say that you had to break before you could be fixed, but this was too much. Back at my school in Portland, this kind of name-calling would get you detention, but here it was called therapy. As the taunts rose into a chorus, Martha looked down, her face hidden behind her lank brown hair, and shuffled her feet in that way of hers, like she was an elephant trying to disappear behind a mouse. She stared at the floor while the chants continued. No one was even trying to pretend to be supportive here; there was none of the usual talk about using food to fight loneliness or to hide her beauty. Just two dozen girls taking out their body-image issues on the size-18 sucker in the mush pot. Like me, Martha didn’t say anything, but she made the mistake of averting her gaze, the sign of defeat. Her back was to me, so I didn’t know that she was crying until I saw the spatter of tears on the blue mat. Usually, once you let the waterworks go, you got a group hug, and pats on the back, and words of encouragement, but all Martha got was a Kleenex.
In the cafeteria that night, I sat next to Martha, who, like me, usually sat by herself. To my surprise, Bebe, Cassie, and V sat down next to us.
“I’m so sorry, Martha,” I said. “It was my fault you got nailed today.”
“No, it wasn’t,” V said. Her face was red with anger. “Neither of you is at fault. It’s this place’s fault. Cruelty described as therapy. No wonder so many girls leave here more messed up than when they came.”
“It was particularly brutal today, roomie,” Bebe said. “And I thought my slut intervention was bad.”
“Bad? You were havin’ a grand ole time,” Cassie said.
“It was kind of amusing. I mean, so what? Who isn’t a slut these days?”
Martha just stared down at her plate of food, until she squeaked, “I don’t get it.”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m supposed to lose weight, but the only thing they have to eat is this stuff,” she said pointing to her plate of breaded fish sticks, Tater Tots, and carrots so overboiled, they were dissolving into a blob under melted margarine. “If I eat this, I’ll just get fatter, but if I don’t eat it, I’ll get written up,” she whined, gesturing toward the clipboard-wielding counselors. And then she started sobbing.
Poor Martha. The food at Red Rock was positively vile. Everything was frozen and came in these industrial-sized metal tins: burgers of dubious meat origin, burritos, pizza, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, ice cream that didn’t have cream in it, packaged cookies. The only fresh vegetable was iceberg lettuce salad with some scary old tomatoes. It was so disgusting that I ended up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches most days. But the girls on food watch didn’t have the luxury of PB and Js. They were monitored all the time. If they ate too much, they got a black mark. If they didn’t eat enough, they were suspected of starving themselves and got a black mark. Martha was supposed to lose weight, but in the catch-22 that was lame-ass Red Rock, she also had to clean her plate.
“Martha,” V said in that sharp way of hers. “Don’t cry. Don’t let them see you weak. There are ways around everything in this place.”
Martha looked up at her. “What ways?”
“Yeah,” I asked. “What are these ways of yours?”
“Not here. Not now. But soon enough we’ll have a little education for some of you newbies.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Shh. Bebe will take care of you,” V said. “Now let’s scatter before we call more attention to ourselves.” V stood up. “I’m glad you’re starting to examine your food crutches, Martha,” she said in an overly loud voice. Then she nodded her head, shot Martha a wink, and walked away.
“Don’t make a sound.” Bebe was standing over me in her pajamas, with her hand over my mouth. I opened my eyes and she put her finger over her lips and mouthed, “Get up.” She went over to Martha and did the same thing, except Martha jumped when she woke, and for a second it looked like Tiffany was up too. We all held our breath until Tiffany rolled back over and resumed snoring into her pile of stuffed animals.
Bebe led us out of our room and through the hallways to the T-junction where the residential units met the administrative offices. She pointed to the guard chair, which was empty, and an open utility closet where one of the goons was asleep on the floor. “He likes to nap between one and three, like clockwork, so we, my dears, have a small window of opportunity.” It was a quarter past one.
“How’d you wake yourself up without an alarm clock?”
“I never went to sleep. I was just replaying my mom’s old soap episodes in my mind. Always good for a laugh.”
“What about the cameras?” I asked.
“They don’t have them in the halls, and besides, they can’t see crap when the lights are out.”
She took us to a small office, empty save for V and Cassie, who were waiting for us there. We sat down in a circle on the floor and faced one another.
“Wow, how’d you know about this office? How’d ya get in?” Martha asked.
V held up a small silver key. “Secret number one,” she said. “The pass key. It opens every door in the place.”
“How did you manage to get that?” I asked.
“Our sneaky V stole it off the Sheriff’s giant key ring,” Cassie said.
“Let’s just say I liberated it. Sheriff thinks he lost it. And of course, they didn’t want to pay to change all the locks,” V said. “Now, let’s get down to business.”
“But what if we get caught?” Martha asked. “I don’t want to get sent back to Level One.”
“We won’t get caught,” V said, impatiently.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Look, I’ve been here for ages and I’ve followed this guard for months. He sleeps from one o’clock till three. You think I’d risk it if I thought we’d get nabbed? I’m on Level Six.”
“Darlings, we’re getting off to a bad start. Can we just begin?”
“I feel like we oughta have some kinda ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ announcement,” Cassie said. “To make it all official.”
“I see your point,” V agreed. “Ladies, welcome to our new, what is it, a club? A clique?”
“Oh, let’s call it a club,” Martha said excitedly.
“A divinely fabulous…..” Bebe said.
“Ultra-exclusive,” I interrupted.
“Club,” Martha crowed.
“Of the cuckoos!” Cassie added.
“Okay then. Welcome to the Divinely Fabulous Ultra-Exclusive Club of the Cuckoos,” V said. “Now, it’s time to get serious. After a year and half I’ve discovered ways to get around many of Red Rock’s rules. I hate this place, and I’ll do anything to fight it. I consider it my revolution from within.”
V, Bebe, and Cassie went on to explain to Martha and me, among other things, how to sneak out letters by giving them to a sympathetic soon-to-be graduate or a trustworthy Level Fiver or Sixer before a town break. Failing that, one or two of the food-service guys could usually be trusted to smuggle a letter out.
“But you better check with us before you give a letter to anyone,” V warned. “Red Rock gives the staff bonuses if they rat us out, but they also pay them crap the rest of the time, so some of the guys would rather stick it to them than earn twenty bucks for being a stool pigeon.”
“Plus, I guarantee that after you’ve been here a while, you’ll be able to get letters from non-family.” Cassie gave me a reassuring wink.
“How?” I asked incredulously. “They read everything.”
“Brit, darling, listen and learn,” Bebe said. “You just have the person pretend to be your mother or brother or whoever. They read our outgoing mail, but they only skim the incoming stuff and if it says ‘Love, Mom and Dad,’ they’ll buy it. They are so pathetically lazy, thank goodness.”
“This is true, but you have to be careful and make sure to speak in code. Because if the letter gets tagged, you’re screwed,” V warned.
“What’s the code?” I asked.
“Do you guys hear something?” Martha asked.
We all froze. “I swore I heard a voice,” Martha whispered. V put her fingers to her lips. We all went silent. The only sound was our breathing and a clock ticking in the hall. I held my breath for extra insurance. I didn’t want to get caught now that I was finally making friends.
After five minutes of silence, V went out for a look and saw the guard snoring away. “False alarm. We’re fine.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought…..” Martha said.
“No, it’s good to be vigilant.” V gave Martha a reassuring nod.
“Can you get back to this code thing?” I asked, thinking of a person I’d like to get mail from.
“Right. Here’s what we’ve done, and it’s worked so far,” V instructed us. “Discussions about the conditions at Red Rock should be veiled as worries about the health of Grandma, Grandpa, or Aunt Josephine or whoever. Declarations of affection or love from friends or boyfriends should be made through gushy descriptions of nice weather. Of course, the first contraband letter you mail should explain all the basic rules. After that it’s up to you to come up with your own code. It’s all a big wink-wink nudge-nudge thing. You’ll know what you guys are talking about. Bebe has even managed to have some mail sex with her pool boy, all in code, and he doesn’t speak English.”
“His name is Pedro and yes he does,” Bebe shot back.
“But don’t get complacent, and don’t get too clever or cute. You never know when they might single out a letter. That Clayton is smart, and if she smells a rat your goose is cooked.”
“Ain’t that a mixed metaphor?” Cassie asked.
V shot her a serious look. “If you get caught, bad diction will be the least of your troubles. Be careful. Be alert. And watch yourself here. Because they’re watching us.”
We all sat there in an ominous silence for a few minutes. V checked the hall clock. “It’s almost three, so we should get back, but there’s one more thing I want to tell you about. After you’ve been here a while, it’s possible, under very particular conditions, to arrange a breakout for a few hours. Once you get town privileges, you can slip away for a while. Cassie’s done it. This one girl, Deanna, even managed to disappear from a forced overnight hike and came back the next day with the staff none the wiser. That happened before I got here, but she’s famous for it. We’re miles from anything worth seeing, so breakouts are more of a last-ditch resort, when you just need to escape for a little while—and I don’t think you newbies should try just yet. But it makes you feel better knowing it’s an option, doesn’t it?” We all nodded. Martha raised her hand.
“Martha, we’re not in class—what is it?”
“The food,” she squeaked.
“Oh, of course. It’s so simple I forgot,” V said. “Socks.”