“Wow,” Martha said. “Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“You forget that Mother is a spa whore. Day spas and salons are practically her hobby. She’s been sending me this crap ever since I got to Level Four. So Merry Christmas, my dears. Be beautiful. Who’s next?”

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“Gee, I feel like mine’s a lump of coal compared to Bebe’s beauty bounty,” Cassie said.

“Oh please, this was nothing,” Bebe said. “Just my mother’s sloppy seconds. What do you have for us, as it seems Santa has forsaken us this year?”

“Christmas chocolate,” Cassie exclaimed, pulling out a giant Hershey bar. We all started drooling.

“Cass, how did you score that?” V asked.

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“My folks brought it for me.”

“But that visit was months ago.”

“In September, but I’m sure it’s still good. Chocolate lasts forever, don’t it?”

“Even antique chocolate would do,” I said. “But how could you hang on to a Hershey Bar for three months? I’d have decimated it ages ago.”

“I wanted to save it…..for somethin’ special…..like this.”

“Darling, how touching,” Bebe said.

“Can we eat it now?” Martha begged.

“Do pigs like dirt?” Cassie asked.

“God, I’ve no idea,” Bebe admitted. We all laughed.

“Just a sayin’, Bebe. Dig in, girls.” Cassie peeled off the brown wrapper, and we were instantly intoxicated by the smell of sweet, chocolatey goodness.

“Now this is bliss,” V said, biting into a piece. “Okay, Martha, you’re next.”

“Mine is sort of silly. I didn’t really know what to give.”

“Martha darling, your self-deprecation is getting old.”

“Huh?”

“Bebe means stop worrying about it,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll love it.”

“Okay, but they’re not very good. I didn’t have charcoals or anything. I had to use pencil. But here.” Martha pulled four postcard-sized pieces of cardboard out of her pocket. They were drawings of each of us, really good drawings that made us look like the girls we once were. Except in Martha’s rendition, we were superheroes. She drew me with a mane of wildly colored hair, wielding a flaming guitar like a weapon. She’d conjured Bebe like an old thirties movie star, holding a magic wand in her hand. She’d made V an Amazonian giant, towering over the world, with one high-heeled boot about to smash an ugly building that looked not unlike Red Rock. Cassie had bulging muscles under a DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS T-shirt and was juggling bricks. We all had capes, and on the bottom of each card Martha had written, “Sisters in Sanity: Superhero Series.”

“Because you guys are—you’re like my heroes,” Martha said.

Nobody said anything for a second, and we all got a little misty.

“Darling,” Bebe said. “Who knew you were such an artist?”

“These are great,” Cassie said.

“Really?” Martha asked, her eyes shining.

“Let’s raise our chocolate to Martha,” V said.

“Thanks, Martha.” I gave her a hug.

“You three outdid yourselves. And now I’m the one feeling a little silly. I’m afraid my present will be a little anticlimactic,” V said.

“Come on, V. We don’t even need a gift from you. You’re the reason we’re all here,” I reminded her. “That’s the biggest gift.”

V’s eyebrows arched up. “Wrong, Brit. We’re all here because of one another. We’re in this together.”

“Now who’s full of false modesty?” I asked. “You’re the one who gives all the good advice, teaches us how to get around, and makes this place bearable!”

“That’s sweet of you to say, Cinders, and it falls in line with my gift. On my last field trip into town, I met these women at the movies. They cornered me in the bathroom, actually. Turns out they used to be counselors here, but unlike the rest of the ghouls, these two had a conscience. One got fired for complaining about how we were treated, and then the other quit in protest. They live in St. George and they share our hatred of Red Rock. They told me that if I ever needed help escaping for the night, or getting ahold of someone on the outside, they’d try to arrange it. So, my gift to you is an IOU. I promise to arrange a prison break for each one of you. I’m totally serious. This is a real IOU, not one of those fake coupons good for doing dishes that you used to give your parents on their anniversary.”

“V, it’s too dangerous,” Martha said.

V shrugged her shoulders. “I like to live on the edge.”

“I’ll say one thing, sister,” Cassie added. “You got balls.”

“Cassie darling, don’t you mean she has eggs?” Bebe asked. “You of all people should know better.”

“Oh, shut your trap,” Cassie said affectionately.

Then they turned to me, and I was suddenly more nervous than I’d been onstage at my first gig. I took a deep breath.

“All right. First you have to imagine this with guitars, two of them, both acoustic, kind of echoey, like Nirvana unplugged. And then it goes from G to D to A minor, kind of like this.” I hummed the chords.

“You wrote us a song?” V asked. I nodded, and she flashed her completely disarming smile my way.

“So, as I was saying, it kind of goes like this, and then it’ll have a low bass and a really soft drumbeat. Very Beck-in-his-quiet-phase-sounding.”

“Brit, just sing,” V said.

And so I did.

There are monsters all around usThey can be so hard to seeThey don’t have fangs, no blood-soaked clawsThey look like you and me.But we’re not defenselessWe’re no damsels in distressTogether we can fend off the attackAll we gotta do is watch our backs.Your body is beautiful how it isWho you love is nobody’s businessWe all contemplate life and deathIt’s the poet who gives these thoughts breath.The monster is strong, don’t be mistakenIt thrives on fear—keeps us isolatedBut together we can fend off its attackAll we gotta do is watch our backs.In your darkest hourWhen the fight’s made you wearyWhen you think you’ve lost your powerWhen you can’t see clearlyWhen you’re ready to surrenderGive in to the blackLook over your shoulderI’ve got your back. We ended the first annual Divinely Fabulous Ultra-Exclusive Club of the Cuckoos Christmas party hugging each other with misty eyes. Then we clinked imaginary glasses of eggnog and sang “I’ve got your back.” V declared it was our new theme song.

The next morning, when it was Christmas for real, the counselors distributed our holiday cards from home. I got three, one from my grandma and two from my dad. One had a bunch of reindeer sitting around a giant candy cane and it was from the whole family; the other was of Santa on a Harley-Davidson in a biker outfit and just said, “Be merry, Firefly.” When the day was over, I couldn’t help thinking that while this definitely ranked as one of the worst Christmases of my life, in a weird way, it was also one of the best.

Chapter 12

“Why do you think your father sent you here, Brit?” Clayton asked me. It was the middle of January, and the skies had turned white with clouds and the wind howled icy drafts up and down the building. It was truly dreary.

“Because my stepmother wanted me out of the way.”

“Don’t you think that excuse is a little too convenient? Life’s not a fairy tale.” She droned on. Of course, this is also what the Sisters had been saying, but I wasn’t about to discuss that with Clayton. That was the maddening thing about her. I mean, Sheriff could be gruff and harsh, but like most people at Red Rock, he didn’t have the patience to stick with it. But with Clayton it was like my refusal to get with her program was some kind of personal affront. Whenever I came to her dank little office, she made a big show of going through my file and pursing her lips to show me how much she disapproved. Then she’d say something like, “You might think your defiant attitude is something to be proud of, but truly, it’s not. It’s just a sign of your denial.” Blah blah-blah blah. And you couldn’t just tune Clayton out. She wasn’t dumb, and she knew how to find your sore spots. After a few months with no great breakthrough for me, she started hitting mine big-time.

“Your father would not have sent you here had he not wanted you to get some help.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Why won’t you talk to me about your mother?”

“You know, Dr. Clayton. I’m sure my dad has told you the whole story. And besides, it’s not like I haven’t thought about my mom before. I’ve had three years to work through the situation with my mom, and talking to you isn’t going to change anything.”

She sighed again and shook her head. “Are you angry at your father for sending you here?”

“No, I’m grateful. I love it.”

She scribbled some notes. Clayton was no fan of sarcasm. “You don’t trust me much, do you?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“Why not?”

This question always slayed me. In spite of their nasty tactics, Red Rock’s counselors were always asking why we didn’t trust them. For once, I decided to tell the truth. I looked into Clayton’s pinched-up face and let loose: “Because this is not the after-school-special version of life, in which I open up to you and you calm my fears and I leave here fixed. What you want, what Red Rock wants, is to turn me into some obedient automaton, who’ll never disagree with my stepmother, talk out of line to Dad, or do ‘rebellious’ stuff like play music or dye my hair. What you don’t get, what my Dad doesn’t seem to get anymore, is that I’m not rebellious at all. I was raised this way. ‘Always march to your own drummer,’ my mom used to tell me. Those were her words to live by. So it’s not like I switched course. Everyone else did. That’s why I’m here.”

When I stopped talking, I was breathing hard. I expected Clayton to be moved, pissed off at least, but judging by her blasé expression, I may as well have been speaking Swahili.

“Are you angry at your father for divorcing your mother?”

I slumped back in my seat, suddenly exhausted by her questions. I understood why Dad divorced Mom, because even though she was still out there somewhere, she was gone, and the doctors said that she wasn’t coming back—not the way she used to be anyhow. If Mom had died, I would’ve wanted Dad to get on with his life, not to spend his days moping for her, and I guess it was kind of like she had died. But another part of me wondered how he could move on without her.

“Why wasn’t your mother committed?” Clayton asked.

I shrugged again. Truth was, Dad was the only one who could legally do it, and he didn’t have the stomach for it. Grandma used to plead with him, crying, “Please, please, she’s my little girl.” Dad would cry back, “I can’t.” He’d fallen in love with Mom’s free spirit, and he couldn’t bring himself to clip her wings. And in case anyone thinks I’m in denial, it’s not lost on me that while my Dad couldn’t commit my totally nutso mom—even with everyone begging him to—all it took was a little nudging from Stepmonster for him to lock me up. But I wasn’t about to share that with Clayton. We’d had enough “honesty” for one day. In fact, I’d had enough of Clayton for one day too. I needed to get away from her, even if I had to burn a bridge to do it.

“You know, if you’re so interested in my dad, maybe you should shrink his head. Oh, but you’re not really a shrink, are you? Just play one on TV, huh.”

Clayton snapped my file shut and licked her pale, thin lips. We still had fifteen minutes left in the session, but she stood up. My little jibe had worked. It had also cost me a level. “I’m moving you back to down to Level Three. I’m disappointed in you. Very disappointed.” She stared at me with her best look of disapproval, trying to gauge how upset I was. Whatever. Level Four, Level Three—the only difference was I couldn’t wear makeup, which I didn’t anyway. And I couldn’t talk on the phone, which was just as well because my weekly five minutes with Dad were really awkward. Neither of us knew what to say, and half the time, Dad put a babbling Billy on the line to fill the silence.

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