“Backcountry therapy, my ass,” Bebe said. “It’s a death march.”

“I hate these,” Martha whined. “I thought they were supposed to stop in winter.”

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“Only when the snow comes, my dear. It’s late this year. Poor us. God, it’s hot for December. I’m sweating like a pig already. Ugh.” Bebe checked her canteen. “I can’t tell how much water I have left.” For some reason, they gave us just one dinky water canteen, a Baggie of trail mix, and an apple.

“So we’ll sweat off our fat,” Martha explained.

“No, darling, because suffering builds character,” Bebe said. “If we’re really hungry we’re supposed to forage for food or something.”

“I’d probably end up eating a poisonous mushroom,” Martha insisted.

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“Maybe you’d get lucky and get one of the magic kind,” Bebe replied.

“Guys, it’s the desert,” I said. “They don’t have mushrooms here. We’d have to eat cactus.”

“Gross. Absolutely gross,” Bebe huffed.

“Hey, you three,” said Missy. She was a super-devoted Red Rocker who’d advanced to Level Four in practically a week. “Sheriff says to pick up the pace and stop the chatting.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bebe said, full of sarcasm.

Missy returned to the front of the pack and Bebe shook her head. “Stockholm Syndrome. So many girls get it. They come to love their captors.”

“They’re just brown-nosing to get out of here,” I said.

“Maybe it starts that way, but they start to enjoy it. They even like these damn hikes. God, how much farther are we expected to go?” Bebe asked.

Bebe continued to bitch her way up and down the mountain, but the girl had logged enough hours on a Stairmaster to handle it. So could I. In Portland, I rode my old Schwinn cruiser around town. Plus, back in the day, I used to go hiking with Mom and Dad through Forest Park. Stepmonster, of course, preferred to spend weekends at the mall. I secretly enjoyed the death march, in part because I knew how much she would have hated it.

Martha, on the other hand, had a tough time of it. “I can’t breathe,” she cried through her wheezes. “I’m never gonna make it.”

“You always say that, dear, and you always make it,” Bebe said.

“Just one foot in front of the other,” I encouraged her.

“But my feet are killing me.”

“Don’t think about that. Look at the scenery,” I said. It was pretty otherworldly—with red rock, red clay, and weird coffin-shaped boulders jutting out everywhere. It looked like Mars.

“I don’t want to look at the scenery,” Martha moaned. “I don’t want to be here at all. I want to be back home in Ohio, walking through a nice park to have a picnic.”

“Picnic. Fab idea. What are we having?” Bebe asked.

“Huh?”

“What’s on the menu for the picnic?” Bebe asked again.

Martha fell silent for a while, but then she piped up: “My mom’s chicken-salad sandwiches. They’re the best. Not too mayonnaise-y.”

“What else?” I asked, glad to distract her.

“My mom makes these twice-baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream. They’re supposed to be eaten hot, but they taste even better cold. Then we’ll have some cut-up carrots and celery to be healthy. And watermelon. And ice-cold lemonade. The homemade kind, not the powdery stuff.”

“What about dessert?” I asked.

Martha pondered that for a second. “Can we have two choices?”

“It’s your picnic, darling. We can have as many as you want,” Bebe said.

“Icebox cake. It’s this thing my grandma used to make. Chocolate biscuits all crunched up with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and then frozen. It’s like an airy ice-cream cake that doesn’t melt all over.”

Bebe and I were both salivating now. “What’s the other option?” I asked.

“Strawberry shortcake. Little individual ones, really thin, with fat strawberries that we picked ourselves, and fresh whipped cream.”

“Oh, stop it Marth,” I said. “This is torturous, worse than the hike.”

“I know, I’m hungrier than ever,” Martha said. But she was also almost at the summit. When we sat down to eat our apples and trail mix we tried to pretend they were Martha’s dream picnic. It almost worked.

Two weeks later, we had the first snowfall of the season. “Thank God,” Martha said, looking at the falling flakes. “No more backcountry therapy.”

I wished group therapy would be over for the season, too. I came to dread the sessions almost as much as my meetings with Clayton. I had tried to fly under the radar for the first few months, and it sort of worked. During the CT sessions, I’d only been put in the hot seat that one time with Sheriff. But after Thanksgiving, all of a sudden my honeymoon was over. Now it was like I was the counselor’s pet project. I wound up in the CT circle twice in one week, and twice they couldn’t get me to cry, even when they mentioned my mom. Some of the Stockholm-Syndrome girls were starting to get nasty with me too, constantly harping on me about not working my program. As if it was any of their business.

Plus, now that the weather was cooler, the counselors patrolled the yard to keep warm, and that kind of ruined the joy of the quarry. We couldn’t talk as much, and we were separated a lot more. And they just got randomly nasty and controlling for no reason. I happen to have a small bladder and had to pee a lot because I drink lots of water when I’m building walls. When it was hot, we got quarry bathroom breaks once an hour, but now that it was cold, we were only permitted to go every two hours. Most of the time, when I raised my hand, they let me go, but one day, one of the goons refused to let me. “I think you use your bladder as a form of control,” he told me. Yeah, to control my pee. I was about to wet my pants so I waited for him to pass and squatted behind a rock.

A dorky Level Four chick named Jenny caught me and started screaming, “Oh, disgusting. She’s going on the ground!”

God, you would’ve thought I’d peed on someone. I got pulled from the quarry and hauled straight into Clayton’s office. She was livid, turning shades of red.

“Your continual defiance is getting tiresome,” she said coldly.

“I’m not defiant. My bladder is. It’s got a mind of its own,” I said.

That remark turned out to be a little too smartass. Clayton turned purple. “I thought I told you to stay away from Miss Larson.”

“What does V have to do with my bladder?” I gave Clayton my best are-you-nuts face.

“This kind of insubordination has her fingerprints all over it.”

For some reason, this made me furious, and now I was the one turning purple. “I’m my own person, Dr. Clayton, as much as you people here want to change that. I can be insubordinate all on my own.”

“I see that you can, Brit. And trust me, we’ll be working on that.”

I expected to be demoted to Level Three right there and then, but Clayton had other plans for me. They sent really bad girls to Red Rock’s version of a naughty chair. It was a small hut, next to the quarry, with a dirt floor and nothing much else. For three days, instead of working the quarry, I had to sit on my ass and not move, not talk, not eat, and not pee for four hours straight. I know it was meant to be a kind of torture, but aside from my cold feet and my numb butt I kind of enjoyed the solitude. I even felt triumphant. They couldn’t break me so easily.

But Clayton wasn’t through with me yet. A few mornings later, I got my runny oatmeal from the cafeteria and went to sit down next to V. She shook her head at me. At first I thought it was the reemergence of her Jekyll and Hyde personality, but later, at the quarry, the counselors immediately separated us, and I got the sense that something bigger was going on. Bebe filled me in that night. V had been called into Clayton’s office and berated for exerting her bad influence not just on me, but on Martha and Bebe as well. She was stripped of much of her Level Six authority (no more leading CT sessions, to V’s relief) and was warned to keep her paws off of us—or say hello to Level Five.

“It appears the party is over, darlings,” Bebe whispered from her bunk.

“What party?” Tiffany asked. “You guys aren’t throwing a party or anything? If you get me in trouble, I swear, I’ll tell.”

“There’s no party, and if there were, rest assured, you wouldn’t be invited,” Bebe replied, making me grateful, not for the first time, that I was on her good side. Sometimes she could be such a bitch.

So, that was the end of the Sisters in Sanity—at least the public face. From then on, we had to lay low, keep our friendship more secret. Which was the most lame-ass thing I’d ever heard of. What kind of messed-up place didn’t want you to have friends, to have any kind of good time? What kind of place wanted you to be lonely, sad, and miserable—all in the name of therapy?

Chapter 11

As Christmas approached, none of us was feeling too merry. First we had the Sisters crackdown. And then it was like, instead of the holidays infusing the staff with some good cheer, it made them more surly. Maybe they thought a little Christmas joy would undo all the tough love they’d been smothering us with. They paid lip service to the holidays by making us decorate the halls, but that was about it. We didn’t get any break in our schedule. No party, no tree.

The anti-Christmas got me thinking about last year. Clod had played a sold-out day-after show at the X-Ray. When we’d finished our set, we walked down to the riverfront to exchange our presents: I’d found Erik a Ramones-emblazoned cigarette lighter, Denise a beaded handbag, and Jed a pulp edition of the Jim Thompson book Pop 1280. My gift made Jed so happy that he gave me a kiss, somewhere between the mouth and the cheek. That had me buzzing for hours. And later on, when I started shivering from the cold, he pulled me close to warm me up. It was probably more a friendly thing than anything romantic, but I still felt all oozy inside and wanted to stay there forever.

There’d be none of that this year. Only Level Five and Six girls were allowed to receive presents from home. The rest of us could only get cards. Exchanging presents among ourselves? Not allowed either. Not that we had anything to give: The staff had refused our request for a Christmas-shopping field trip.

It was V’s idea to exchange presents anyhow. “We obviously can’t give traditional presents,” she said the week before Christmas. She’d managed to sneak up to Bebe and me on the cafeteria line. “Clearly that’s not an option here, or I’d give you all cashmere socks. But let’s all try to come up with something. I’ll tell Cassie; you let Martha know. Then if the coast is clear, we can sneak away to our usual place on Christmas Eve for a private party.”

Right when V said that, I knew what my present to her would be, and thanks to Clayton, I’d already started it. During all those empty hours in the Naughty Hut, I’d worked on it and the time had slipped by. I was excited about sharing my project with the Sisters, but nervous, too, that they wouldn’t like it. I was also pretty curious to see what they’d “get” me. Nervous, eager, and curious—kind of like a kid the night before Christmas.

“Well, darlings, it’s not quite a day at the Peninsula, but it will have to do,” Bebe said, spreading out a bunch of fancy moisturizers, bath salts, makeup, and hair-product samples. V had worried that Christmas Eve would be a risky time to sneak out, but half the staff was away, and the rest, we figured, were getting hammered.

“Martha, you strike me as a Kiehl’s girl,” she said, giving her some cucumber lotion. “Brit, you are so M.A.C,” she said, presenting me with a tube of Lipglass. “You’ll love it—it feels like liquid sexiness. V, your hair’s getting a little unchunky, so this ought to help,” she said, handing over some Bed Head samples. “And finally, Cassie, some lavender oil for you. It’s nice-smelling, but not too much like perfume. I know you don’t do the girlie thing.”

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