The Greyhound stops abruptly, jolting Sam out of a dream.
"Wilson, Sam," the driver calls, tired and flat. "Time to get off, kid."
Sam stares around the nearly empty bus as he staggers to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. This isn't his room, this isn't his bed, and he can't remember why he's here.
"Where are we?" he asks as he makes his way to the front of the bus, his voice hoarse from sleep. He turns to look out the window. They're idling by the side of a hill surrounded by weedy-looking fields. A gravel path rises up it, leading to a house in the middle distance. It looks like the Midwest, or at least the Midwest as he’s seen it on TV, but he knows they can't have gone that far.
"Your stop," the driver says. He's turned in his seat to look back at Sam, his expression neither kind nor unkind. "This is where your ma told me to let you off. Come on, son, I've got to be back in Manhattan by seven."
He clutches his duffel bag to his chest and takes a deep breath before he descends. The driver barely waits for his feet to touch the ground before he pulls away, leaving Sam coughing in the dust. The sun's too bright after the cool dimness of the bus, and he has to squint to read the sign hammered into the grass by the path. It's garishly painted in shades of pink and blue so bright Sam feels like it's screaming at him.
TRUE DIRECTIONS, it reads, and then, below two male and female stick figures, FREEING OUR YOUTH FROM SEXUAL PERVERSION.
Seeing the name brings it all back in one sick rush. This is why he spent the first morning of the summer on a bus, instead of sleeping off a hangover on his best friend’s bedroom floor.
Sam Wilson is going to gay rehab.
When he'd walked through the door the previous afternoon and seen his mother, Riley, and a strange bald guy sitting on the couch, he honestly hadn't thought much of it. Of course Riley would be there; it was their last day of high school, the start of the last summer they'd have together before Riley went to Penn State and he went to Columbia. (And even that wouldn’t give them much time to hang out—they both had part-time jobs, and Sam was planning to volunteer with the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan two days a week.) The bald guy was a little less usual, but he figured it was one of his mom's friends, or maybe one of her eighty thousand out-of-state cousins. Sam wasn't sure how many people in the country his mother was related to, but he thought it had to be at least half the population.
"Hey, guys," he said, nodding at the stranger and giving Riley a broad grin. Weirdly, Riley ducked his head and looked away, not making eye contact. Sam shrugged and crossed the room to his mother, dropping a kiss on her cheek. "What's up?"
"Samuel, honey," his mother began. Sam froze. His mother only used his whole first name when she was either pissed or about to give him bad news. She didn't look pissed. "How about you sit down with us for a minute."
It wasn't a question. Sam's legs obeyed the words before his mind could process them, and he dropped into the armchair facing the couch. His mother's expression was solemn. Riley still wasn't looking at him. The bald guy, however, was smiling politely, his brown eyes unreadable behind his glasses.
The last time this had happened was when he'd come home to find a cop sitting with his mother and been told that his father was dead. His heart began to race.
"Who died?" he asked. His mother visibly started, then shook her head. Maybe she was remembering that day, too.
"Nobody, Sam," she said. She gestured to the bald guy, whose faint smile widens slightly as he extends his hand. "Jasper, this is my son, Sam. Sam, this is Jasper Sitwell."
Who the hell names their kid Jasper? Sam thought but didn't say. He shook Jasper's hand, noting how cool and dry his skin was. He was wearing all blue, shorts and a polo shirt with some kind of design embroidered on the pocket. He held a clipboard in his other hand, angled so Sam couldn't see what was on it. "Nice to meet you," he said, more out of habit than anything else. He didn't really want to meet this guy—he and Riley had a party to go to that night, and the last thing he wanted to do was waste time chit-chatting when he could have been getting ready.
"You too," Jasper said, withdrawing his hand. He settled back against the couch, his eyes never leaving Sam's face. "Sam, I've been invited here today because your mother and your friend Riley want to have a conversation with you. My job is to act as a sort of mediator in that conversation, to facilitate dialogue and ensure that nobody gets sidetracked. Are you with me so far?"
Sam blinked. "Yes?" he said, baffled. The words, and the steady, sad gaze his mother had turned on him, reminded him uncomfortably of the one episode of Intervention he’d ever watched.
"Fantastic." Jasper smiled. "Darlene, why don't you go first?"
His mom reached out between the couch and the chair to take his hands in hers. She squeezed his fingers gently, and he could feel the warm gold of her wedding ring pressed against his skin. He squeezed back, his heart slowing down a little. Whatever it was, whatever they had to talk about, she'd make it okay.
"Sam, honey," she said, her voice very gentle, "we think you're a homosexual."
On closer examination the house, an old-fashioned farmhouse with gable windows and a wraparound porch, proves to be painted the same hideous colours as the sign at the foot of the hill, walls alternating between blue and pink. He has to commend them for choosing a theme and sticking to it.
Jasper—Sitwell, Sam privately thinks of him—is waiting for him on the front steps, still wearing that faint, imperturbable smile. Next to him is an older man whose sky blue suit makes him look faintly clownish. His thick reddish hair is parted sharply to the side, and his smile is broad and blindingly white. He grasps Sam's hand as soon as he gets close enough, shaking it vigorously.
"Sam Wilson," he says, his voice smooth and cheerful. "Nice to meet you. I just got off the phone with your mother, she was worried that you hadn't arrived yet. I'm Alexander Pierce. You can call me Al."
Sam will definitely not be calling this guy Al.
Sitwell steps forward and tugs the duffel bag out of his other hand before Sam has time to react. "That's mine!" he protests even as Sitwell takes it into the house with him. There isn't much in there—clothes, a few books, his iPod and letter jacket—but still, it's his stuff.
Pierce nods sympathetically. "House rules, I'm afraid," he says, clapping Sam on the shoulder. "We have to check all the campers' bags for contraband--pornography, illicit reading materials, cigarettes or drug paraphernalia-"
"I'm going to Columbia on a football scholarship," Sam says, annoyed. "I don't do drugs. Or smoke." Both statements are basically true—he's only tried pot once and has smoked exactly three cigarettes in his life, all of them while drunk.
Pierce smiles. "Nevertheless," he says, and leaves it at that. "Follow me, please, Sam, and I'll give you a quick debriefing."
Sam tries not to stare as he mounts the steps and enters the house with him, but it's hard. The inside of the house is painted the same way as the outside—blue and pink, obnoxiously bright—and the walls are hung with cheerful paintings of domestic scenes that look like illustrations from pre-war magazines. There's a stinging antiseptic smell about the place, like it's just been cleaned with bleach, and he's pretty sure the flowers in the (pink) vase on the (blue) hall table are fake.
Pierce's office thankfully diverges from the retina-burning colour scheme; it's painted dark green and decorated to look like an old-fashioned gentleman's study, all brass and mahogany. Still, Sam notices as he sits that the leather on the high-backed swivel chair is suspiciously shiny, and the leather-bound books on the shelf seem to be stuck together. Cardboard, probably, or plastic. The odd smell is less intense in here, though the paper-and-pipe-tobacco scent that replaces it seems just a touch too pleasant to be anything but artificial.
Pierce takes a seat behind his desk, leaning forward a bit in his chair. He looks convivial and relaxed. "Let me tell you a little about True Directions," he says. "Our program is designed fairly simply, with just five steps." He strikes them off on his fingers. "Step One: Admit that you're a homosexual. Step Two: Rediscover your gender identity. Step Three: Participate in family therapy. Step Four: Demystify the opposite sex. And finally, Step Five: Simulated sexual experience. We built True Directions on the understanding that homosexuality is the result of gender-based confusion. Homosexual tendencies arise when an individual fails to recognize the appropriate roles of men and women. If we correct this confusion by making sure that you get in touch with your own masculinity, we correct your sexuality, and thereby allow you to resume a normal, healthy lifestyle." He pauses, seeming to wait for Sam to say something. When he doesn’t, he continues. "The other campers all passed Step One yesterday, so now it's your turn. When did you realize you were a homosexual?"
"I'm not," Sam replies immediately. Pierce raises an eyebrow.
"Really?” he says. “Your mother referred you here. She must have done that for a reason."
He sighs, feeling a headache beginning to build behind his eyes. "Yeah, she did," he replies. He's trying really hard not to sound curt or rude, because for all she seems to have suddenly turned into a delusional nutcase, his mother raised him right. "A lot of reasons, as it turns out. And they're all stupid."
Pierce nods sympathetically. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
Hey, he might as well.
Sam stared at his mother for a moment, dumbstruck. "What?"
"I think," his mother repeated patiently, "that you might be a-"
"I heard you, Mom, Jesus!" There were rules about taking the Lord's name in vain in the Wilson household, at least in front of company, but Sam was surprised enough to forget them just then. "Why would you think-" He turned to Riley, who still wouldn't make eye contact. Now he knew why. "Riley, is this your deal too?"
Riley shrugged uncomfortably. "I dunno," he mumbled, shifting in place. "There're, like, things I've noticed. About you."
"Like what?" Sam demanded. "I've had girlfriends, for God's sake—you set me up with my last girlfriend!"
"And you never slept with her," Riley pointed out, finally meeting Sam's gaze. There was guilt in his eyes, but beneath that something else. Defiance, maybe. "And she wanted to, you know she wanted to."
They were talking about this in front of his mother. Sam was going to need years of therapy to get over this conversation.
"That doesn't mean anything,” he replied. Which it didn’t. Amber had been great—she was gorgeous, they’d had a lot in common, she was fun and funny and came to all of his games, and yeah, Sam hadn’t slept with her, but so what? It was senior year and he’d been working for a scholarship. What with homework and practice every night, plus a part-time job at PetSmart, plus babysitting for his little cousins sometimes, he barely had enough time to sleep, let alone have sex. It had been the main reason why they’d broken up. “Not having sex with one girl doesn’t make me gay!”
"You're eighteen, Sam," Jasper interjected patiently. "What eighteen year old doesn't want to sleep with his girlfriend?"
"An eighteen year old who, like, respects women?" Sam shot back. He glanced at his mother, hoping this would have an impact on her. Her expression didn't change, and his stomach clenched uncomfortably.
"Or an eighteen year old who isn't attracted to women," Jasper said. He glanced at Sam's mother. "Darlene, you have something to say, don't you?"
His mother nodded, not taking her eyes off Sam. "The posters, Sammy," she said. "The ones in your room. They're all of men."
This was just too fucking much. Sam rubbed his temples, trying to bite back his frustration. "They're posters of football players," he said, as patiently as he could. "I’m a defensive end. I like football. Is it gay to like football now?"
"Absolutely not," Jasper said, even though Sam hadn't been talking to him. "It's completely natural for a boy to like football. But for a boy to have posters of men in his room—muscular men, men in tight pants, men who, let's face it, look like they stepped straight out of a bath house... is that normal, Sam? Are your friends' rooms like that? Is Riley's?"
It was true that Riley's bedroom had a lot more T&A plastered to the walls than Sam's did. But then, Riley had never been that into sports, so why would he have pictures of athletes around? "So you think I'm, what, jerking it to Lawrence Taylor? That’s ridiculous. I have a Marvin Gaye poster, too, you think I want to get in his-”
“Samuel,” his mother said, her voice a clear warning. “Watch your mouth.”
"What about the bird thing?" Riley asked suddenly. He looked Sam in the eyes again. "You’re volunteering with the Wild Bird Fund this summer. This is our last summer before college, we're supposed to be partying and getting laid, and you're gonna go clean chicken shit all day? What is that, man?"
Sam stared at him. He somehow hadn't felt hurt yet, just annoyed and confused, but that—that stung. "I like birds," he replied at last. He didn't know what else to say. "You know that, Riley. You were there that time we found that pigeon, remember? We put it back in the nest. Together. What, do you think that was foreplay or something now?" His voice was getting loud, he realized; he'd nearly shouted the last few words.
Riley ducked his shoulders and looked down again. "I don't know what I think," he said quietly, scuffing a shoe against the edge of the living room rug.
"Sam." Jasper's tone was soothing, like he was trying to calm an angry toddler. "I understand that you feel defensive. These are patterns you may not have noticed, may not even recognize as harmful. That's why we're here. To help you understand the danger of the path you're on." He handed Sam the clipboard. "I used to be in your position. But now I've overcome my own homosexual tendencies and I live a normal, healthy lifestyle, thanks to True Directions. I’m an ex-gay now, Sam. You can be, too."
Sam stared down at the clipboard. A bright blue pamphlet on top bore the headline STRAIGHT IS GREAT! He flipped it open, glancing at the contents.
"What is this?" he asked, looking up at Jasper.
Jasper smiled. "A place that can help you," he said.
"So there it is," Sam concludes. "That's why I'm here."
Retelling the story makes it all sound even more absurd. Pierce nods thoughtfully, his brow furrowed in thought. This is good, Sam thinks. Maybe he sees how stupid it all is, maybe he'll send him home and he can forget this ever happened.
"So you don't believe you need to be here," he says. "You don't think you need to be fixed."
"Of course not!"
Pierce smiles, and Sam realizes that he's caught him in a trap. "A lot of our campers feel that way when they first come to us," he says. His voice is gentle and understanding. "Even Jasper did, back in the day, and now look at him! He's safe and healthy on the other side, so much so that he's dedicated his life to helping kids like you." He steeples his fingers. "Of course, it's more difficult for us today than it was when he was young. It's hard to get through all the brainwashing you kids go through. Pop culture, the media, liberal bias—it's all taught you to ignore a very important truth regarding human sexuality."
"Which is?" Sam barely manages to stop himself from rolling his eyes at 'liberal bias.' His mother's a registered Democrat, for God's sake, and look where he is.
"That it exists for a specific purpose and is meant to be contained within certain boundaries," Pierce replies. "Sex is a beautiful thing, Sam"--and oh, gross, he does not want to hear that coming out of this guy's mouth--"but only when it happens between a man and woman. The sole purpose of sex is to propagate the species. Now, tell me, can two men do that? Or two women?" His tone is light and teasing. It takes Sam a minute to realize he’s actually waiting for an answer.
"No," he replies finally.
Pierce beams, reaching out to clap his shoulder again. Sam really, really wishes he'd stop doing that. "Very good!" he enthuses. Reaching underneath his desk, he pulls out a bundle of blue cloth that matches his suit almost exactly. "For the time being," he says, "you'll remain in uniform. As you move on in the program, you'll be allowed to introduce civvies back into your wardrobe, so long as they're gender appropriate, neat, and clean."
Sam unfolds the bundle and bursts out laughing. It's a short-sleeved dress shirt, a clip-on tie, and a pair of shorts. He half expects to find a beanie with a propeller on the top hidden in there. "Seriously?" he says, looking at Pierce. "Come on, this has to be a joke, right?"
Pierce's smile does not fade, but his eyes are suddenly colder than they were before. "None of this is a joke, Sam," he says evenly. "We’re all trying to help here, and that's more than most people would do. If I were in your position I'd keep that in mind."
Sam shivers involuntarily, fighting the urge to avert his eyes. He doesn't like the way that Pierce is looking at him.
A knock sounds at the door behind them. Sam twists in his seat to see a dark-haired girl walk in, dressed in a bright pink blouse and skirt. She's tall and looks taller because of the way she carries herself, stiff and erect. Her blue eyes rest on Sam for a moment before flicking up to Pierce. She waits in the doorway, reminding Sam of nothing so much as the Buckingham Palace guards he's seen in movies. Maybe if he poked her she wouldn't react.
"Maria!" Pierce sounds pleased. His eyes are suddenly warm again, almost twinkling. "Sam Wilson, meet Maria Hill. She's going to show you around, teach you the ropes. And, well, you'll get acquainted."
Sam picks up the absurd blue uniform and follows Maria out, feeling relieved when the door closes on Pierce's smiling face.
One of Sam's cousins has been in Cadets since he was eleven. Maria reminds Sam of him; she's all brisk efficiency, wasting no energy in her movements. Her hair is pulled back into a tight knot that Sam thinks must be regulation, and she speaks in a direct, no-nonsense kind of way, like she's used to giving orders.
"Kitchen's over there," she says, pointing. "Don't go in there unless you're on washup duty, the cook doesn’t like it. The dining room's across the hall. Breakfast's at eight every morning sharp, dinner's at five, lunch is at twelve unless you're taking it out in the field."
"The field?" Sam repeats blankly. "What field?"
"No particular field," she replies, a touch of humour livening her voice for the first time. "Jasper is in charge of you boys. Mostly you're going to spend your afternoons outdoors—camping, tackle football, fixing cars, stuff like that. They call it Gender Reorientation."
"Yeah? What do you guys do for that?"
"Cooking. Cleaning. Mani-pedis. Sometimes we get to try putting diapers on baby dolls." Her tone is carefully neutral.
"Jesus," Sam mutters. "What is this, Leave It to Beaver?"
Maria's mouth twists wryly, but she doesn't respond. "Mornings are for group therapy," she continues, her neat pink shoes clicking against the floor of the porch. "You're actually just on time for that today, breakfast is winding down. After supper we get a few hours of free time, then we do an hour of GST—Gender Segregated Therapy—until bedtime. That's nine o'clock sharp, lights out at nine thirty. You getting all this?"
"Good." She leads him out the back door and onto the porch, rounding the right-hand corner to a blue door. "This is the boys' dorm," she says. She raps smartly on the wood and calls, "Everybody decent in there?"
"There's no everybody," someone replies. The voice is faint through the wood. "Just me."
Maria rolls her eyes and swings the door open.
The room is baby blue. That's not unexpected, Sam can deal with that. That the beds, bed clothes, night tables, and dressers are blue as well is also not a surprise, although he's a little weirded out by the fact that the comforters all seem to be made of plastic. Above each bed hangs a picture of men doing things: hunting, fishing, playing baseball, driving cars. The too-clean smell is leavened by the smell of socks and sweat, and Sam is oddly relieved to see miscellaneous objects strewn across the carpet. The Stepford-style tidiness of the rest of the house was unsettling; this looks like a place where actual humans live.
"There are six of you right now," Maria tells him. She hasn't stepped into the dorm with him; maybe it's not allowed. "Your bed's the one in the far corner. There'll be a rule sheet in your night table drawer if Al didn't already give you one. It's all pretty simple stuff, though. No smoking, no drinking-"
"No fucking," someone says. Sam jumps and turns toward the voice, the same one he'd heard through the door. On the third bed a skinny blond kid is sprawled on his stomach with his feet resting on his pillow, his blue uniform blending into his coverlet until he's nearly invisible. His hands are moving busily, drawing something with charcoal in a sketchbook.
Maria sighs. "Sam," she says, a hint of annoyed resignation tempering her brisk, even tone, "this is Steve. Steve, don't corrupt the newbie."
Steve glances up from his sketchbook, one dark eyebrow raised. His eyes meet Sam's for a second. They're really blue, Sam notices, like they're trying to keep up with the overall colour scheme. "Am I lying? Is 'no fucking' not on the list of dorm rules?"
"It's 'no sexual misconduct', and there's also a rule against swearing," Maria says, her lips compressed into a thin white line. "As you know. What are you doing?"
He shrugs one bony shoulder, dropping his gaze again. "Drawing,” he replies, a little too casually. He moves his arm just a little, shielding the page from view.
"You know Jasper's going to go through that later. If there's anything inappropriate in there-"
"Already taken care of." He lifts it and flips through the pages, displaying jagged edges where pages have been torn out. "I went to Catholic school, Hill, it’s not like this is new to me."
She grimaces. "Just be careful, that's all," she says. Sam thinks he hears an edge of fondness there under the exasperation. She beckons for Sam to follow her out the door.
As he turns to close it behind him he meets Steve's eyes for another brief moment. His expression is hard to read—not sad exactly, not angry, but something in between and completely different. He offers him a smile. Steve looks surprised for a second, then smiles back a little.
"Welcome, I guess," he says. His voice is pretty deep for such a skinny little dude, warm and quiet.
"Thanks," Sam says, and shuts the door.
Maria's leaning against the porch railing, her arms crossed. "That kid's gonna get himself in trouble," she says, as though to herself. She looks up at Sam. "The rest of us... we're pretty resigned, you know? None of us really want to be here, but we know we’re stuck here until we either graduate or get kicked out. But Steve, he just keeps fighting. Yesterday we ended up spending half of group listening to him argue with Al and Jasper about whether or not birth control is a sin. He doesn't seem to understand that it'll be easier for him—for everyone—if he just keeps his head down, takes what they give him, and tries to get through it." She stops, then smiles ruefully. "Not that that's my official position, of course."
"Of course," Sam echoes. His headache's coming back, making the porch swim around him a little. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even lunchtime yet. "What is your official position?"
She shrugs. "Whatever gets me out of here fastest. I'm supposed to go into the Reserves this summer. Can't do that if I'm here."
So he was right—she is military. "So is everybody here like you?" he asks, leaning against the raining next to her.
Maria cocks an eyebrow at him. "Like me how?"
"You know, just waiting it out. So people will leave you alone. I figure I can't be the only one who got sent here by mistake, right?"
She stares at him for a moment, then bursts out laughing.
"You think I'm straight?" she chokes out, her face turning red. "You think you're straight?"
"I am!" Sam protests, irritated. Honestly, when the hell did people start assuming he was gay? Have they always and just not wanted to mention it before? "My mom just-"
Her laughter drowns him out. Shaking her head, she gestures towards the blue bundle in his hands.
"The next door down is the boys' bathroom," she says. "Go get changed. We have Group in a few minutes. You can't wear civvies for that. Even if you’re straight." She walks away and disappears around the corner, still chuckling a little. Sam looks down at the uniform and scowls.
"This is ridiculous," he says to no one. A crow calls mockingly back to him from the distance.
Maybe group therapy will be his ticket out of here. If he can state his case convincingly enough, and all the other campers believe him, Pierce will have to listen to him, won't he? He can call Sam's mom, tell her she made a mistake, and he can go back to New York and get on with his life. Maybe this summer won't be a total write-off.
"First things first," he murmurs. Squaring his shoulders, he goes to get dressed.