“Get up!” a voice shouted.
Pete jerked awake.
“Up, get your ass out of bed, up on your feet!”
Pete struggled to figure out who was yelling and what was wrong. Someone grabbed him; he struck out automatically, and then he was on the floor, face ground into the carpet and hands forced behind him. Kidnapped, he thought with a jolt, they broke in, they’re gonna kill me, help-- “Mom,” he yelled, “Dad, help, help me--”
Someone yanked him to his feet. He squinted against the light, vision blurry, and when he blinked and his eyes cleared, he saw Mom and Dad standing in his doorway. “Help,” he said again, but they just looked sad. He twisted to either side, still confused, and a man dressed in a dark suit gripped his shoulder and dug his fingers in hard. Pain lanced down Pete’s arm, and he yelled, but it didn’t stop.
“Your parents have given us permission to transport you to Desert Rock Academy, where you will--”
“Mom, help, what are they doing--”
“--studies and work the program until--”
“Dad, what did I do, what--”
“--earn your right to graduate and return to your--”
“What is this, why are you doing this, what the fuck--”
“--parents have given us as agents of Desert Rock the authority--”
“You’re sending me away?”
“--in loco parentis.” The man in the uniform let Pete’s shoulder go, and the echoes of pain flicked down his nerves. Before he could catch his balance and get his parents to just stop this for a second, to just talk to him, the man shoved Pete forward. Another man caught Pete by the arms and kept him from falling, and between the two, they propelled him out of his room and out the front door.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Pete raged in the early morning dark, struggling against the men to hurl his words back at the house. “You people are the worst parents in the world, what the fuck is wrong with you?” The men shoved his head down and pushed him into the back seat of their sleek gray car. Pete threw himself against the door, but his hands were cuffed behind him and there was no handle anyway. He sat back for a second to orient himself, to catch his breath. He saw Mom standing in the doorway, backlit from within. He couldn’t tell if she was sad, or sorry, or just relieved.
“Brendon. Buddy, wake up.”
Brendon pulled the sheet in tighter.
“Come on, Bren. They’re going to be here soon. You need to be set to go.”
He remembered all of a sudden, and the memory pulled him up to his feet before he was ready. He felt sick.
His dad stood at the foot of his bed. It was five in the morning. “Get dressed. Your mom has breakfast for you.”
“I’m not hungry,” he mumbled.
“You’ll change your mind,” said Dad. “We’re not sending you to Arizona on an empty stomach.”
Then don’t send me at all, Brendon wanted to say. He nodded and pulled his shirt on instead. He had to go. They’d all talked about it, Mom and Dad and Bishop Kimball. Everyone agreed that this was the best option, and if Brendon wasn’t really sure that it was, the combined authority of his parents and the church pretty much crushed any of his objections.
He wandered downstairs and sat at the table. There was a plate of scrambled eggs, veggie bacon, a couple pieces of toast spread with strawberry-rhubarb jam. It tasted like styrofoam, but he chewed and swallowed automatically, concentrating on the mechanics of eating and not what was going to come after.
When he looked down again, his plate was empty. “I’m gonna brush my teeth,” he said to the room. There was no response. He went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. There was a window there, big enough for him to crawl through, but it was pointless. If he was going to run, he had had plenty of opportunity over the last week. He stayed because this was his home, this was his family, and he wasn’t just going to leave them forever because he was defective. It wasn’t their fault. Mom and Dad had managed to raise four other children who weren’t effed up. Maybe it wasn’t even Brendon’s fault, but however it had happened, he was the one who needed to be fixed.
The three of them sat in the dining room, waiting for the knock. Brendon fidgeted, antsy at even the best of times, and this was hardly that. He caught Dad’s eye and slowed.
“I’ll work really hard,” he said abruptly.
“I hope so, Bren,” said Dad. “I really hope so.”
“I will,” Brendon promised. His voice was shaking. He folded his hands tighter. “I’ll go through the program and I’ll graduate and come home as soon as I can. Just. Don’t be mad at me, okay? I’m sorry.”
“Oh sweetheart.” Mom looked like Brendon was breaking her heart. “We aren’t mad. This isn’t something you did. We know you never would have chosen this.”
Brendon wished he hadn’t said anything, because he felt way too close to crying, and he didn’t want to cry in front of them. He was a teenager, not a little kid. “Will you call me?” he asked unsteadily.
“As soon as they tell us we can, we will,” Dad said. “You have our word on that, son.”
The knock made them all jump. Dad went and opened the door; Brendon stood up, unsure of what he was supposed to do now, but the woman said “Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” so he lowered his head and did it.
“Is that necessary?” asked Mom as the woman snapped cuffs onto Brendon’s wrists.
“It’s standard policy, ma’am,” said the woman. “The ones who attack you are usually the ones you don’t expect.”
“Brendon wouldn’t. He’s a good boy,” said Mom.
The woman straightened up and gave her a professional smile. “I’m sure he wouldn’t.” She gripped Brendon by the arm and walked him toward the door.
“I love you,” he said, before they took him into the gray light of dawn.
“We love you too, Brendon,” said Dad. “Come back to us soon.”
“Mikey, get the hell out of the way,” Gerard demanded. Mikey crossed his arms, blew his bangs out of his eyes, and didn’t answer.
“Michael James Way,” said Mom, “you get your ass away from that door right fucking now, you hear me?”
“No,” said Mikey. “You can’t take Gee away.”
“I’ll handle this,” said one of the men, clearly tried beyond patience. He reached for Mikey but “No!” said Dad. “You have our permission to take Gerard, but you do not touch his brother.”
“Goddammit, Mikey,” said Mom. She sounded more tired than angry. “Gerard has to go away for a while. Let him go.”
Mikey stared at her, stubbornly blank, and backed up further against the door.
“This is ridiculous,” muttered one of the men.
“Mikey, just fucking stop,” Gerard said, furious at him, at his parents, at everyone in the world. “Get out of the way. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and just because Mom and Dad are assholes who won’t fucking listen to me--”
“That’s enough out of you,” said the other man, and jerked Gerard’s arm up behind him.
“You don’t have to,” Dad began, and then Mikey lunged, and the man who had Gerard screamed out loud. He bent forward, grabbing his leg-- holy shit, was that Gerard’s pencil? oh fuck, Mikey-- and suddenly Mikey was all over him, a blur of fists and teeth. Gerard stumbled back and began to laugh helplessly. It took both Dad and the other man to wrestle Mikey off the guy, who was swearing and threatening to sue. Mikey struggled silently against their hands, teeth bared.
“I’m filing a police report!” said the man furiously, “He fucking stabbed me!”
“Hey, come on, he’s just a kid,” said Dad.
“Yeah, right,” the other man said, “they’re all ‘just kids’ until they turn into violent little animals--”
“Jesus, Mikey, what the fuck is wrong with you?” yelled Mom. “Don’t tell me you’re turning into a psycho like your brother--”
“I told you I wasn’t gonna--”
“Ask me, they could both stand to go--”
Mikey stopped struggling. Dad was so surprised, he let go. “Fine,” Mikey said. “Yeah. If you take him, you take me too.” He wiped his bangs out of his face with his free hand and pushed his glasses back up his nose. He was breathing hard, but he looked perfectly calm.
“Mikey, no,” said Gerard. “You don’t want to go. There’s no reason, not for either of us--” he shot a look at his parents-- “but Jesus, don’t fucking ask to go.”
“I mean it,” said Mikey. He looked at Mom. “If you let him go without me, I’m gonna burn the house down.”
“Oh my God,” said Dad. “Mikey...”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mom said again, but she sounded worried this time. “You weren’t like this before.”
“Yeah, well, you never got armed thugs in here to kidnap me before,” shouted Gerard.
“Gerard, what have you been telling him? What have you been trying to get him to do?”
“I will. Burn. It. Down.” The scary thing was that Mikey wasn’t yelling. He was serious and calm and very clear that he meant what he said.
“Jesus,” said Mom again. She looked like she was going to cry.
Dad sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. Okay.”
Pete walked through the airport with his head down and his jacket looped through his bound hands. One of the rent-a-cops had his hand on Pete’s shoulder at all times. They’d kept his hands zip-tied in front of him even while they were on the plane, which made no sense, cause where was Pete gonna go, the luggage compartment? They said it was policy, so Pete had sat in between them and tried to sleep despite his rapidly growing unease.
One of them had his fingers through Pete’s belt loop and guided him to the exit. It was almost April, but the air outside hit Pete in the face like a blast from an oven. He felt himself droop. The man stood him next to a concrete pillar, then stood on his other side, never letting go for a second.
“You can let me go,” said Pete. “It’s not like I have anywhere to go.”
The man acted like he hadn’t heard.
“Or, y’know, if you get your rocks off touching teenage boys, go for it,” Pete said. “Want me to suck your dick too? I won’t tell.” No reaction. Pete tried to think of something worse to say, but he was tired and the heat sucked any leftover energy out of him. His brain didn’t want to work. When the other dude pulled up in an anonymous rental car, Pete let them open the door and put him inside.
It had that new-car smell Pete had always hated. The air conditioning whooshed almost silently. They pulled out onto the freeway, blue sky and red rock stretching as far as Pete could see. He fell asleep after a couple hours, bored and worn out and just unable to be scared anymore.
He woke up when the car started bouncing, and grabbed the headrest in front of him. “Oh God. Pull over.”
“Shut up,” said the one driving. Neither of them looked at him. The road in front was red dirt, guttered like a washboard.
“No seriously, I’m gonna-- they told you I get carsick, right? I’m gonna throw up, pull over.”
“Quit faking,” said the other one.
Pete had been, a little, but they hit a rut and his stomach lurched and he let out a belch-- one of them turned and looked then-- and suddenly he really was throwing up, all over the seat and into the footwell. “Christ,” snarled the driver, and they swerved to the side. Pete coughed and spat, braced on his bound hands. The passenger guy looked back over the seat.
“I told you,” said Pete when he could talk again. “Ugh. I need some water.”
The man turned back around.
“Uh, hey?” Pete wiped his mouth. “Seriously. Can I have some water?”
“No,” said the driver.
“Hey, come on,” Pete said. This was stupid. “I just threw up. I just wanna rinse out my mouth.”
“Shut up,” said the other one.
“I just want some water,” said Pete, growing angry. “We’re in the middle of the fucking desert and I can’t have some water, what the fuck?”
The man in the passenger seat looked back calmly at Pete. “Sit back, put your seatbelt on, and shut up, or I will cuff your hands behind your back again.” The man was not angry in the least, and it was that that made Pete’s stomach lurch again. He sat back and did what he was told. The car stank with an acid tang.
“The thing is,” said Gerard, his voice hoarse, his hands nicotine-jittery, “the Corinthian isn’t evil, like, he didn’t make the choice to eat peoples’ eyeballs. It’s how he was made. He’s a nightmare, he’s supposed to be fuck--” he coughed-- “fuckin’ scary. It’s not his fault.”
Mikey sat silently beside him, a shoulder pressed against Gerard’s arm. It was Mikey’s listening silence. Gerard kept talking. “So, like, even if it isn’t his fault, though, he’s still going around killing people, so he has to be destroyed. He’s a tragic figure. He’s more tragic than fucking King Lear, cause Lear was just a dick.”
A door opened, and the men with them hauled Gerard and Mikey to their feet. The guy who came to stand in front of them was tan, younger than Gerard’s parents, with cord-muscled arms in a tight black t-shirt. “Gerard and Michael Way, right?”
“Yeah,” said their escort. “Sign here and they’re yours, and thank fuck for that. The little one sent Miller to the ER.”
“Yeah?” The guy signed, then turned to look at Mikey and Gerard. “All right, listen up. You’re going into lockdown for 24 hours so you can start coming down off whatever you’ve been on. Behave yourself and it’ll only be for 24 hours. Act out, and it’ll be as long as it needs to be.”
“We’re not on anything,” said Gerard.
“Then this won’t be hard, will it?” The guy’s smile was full of very white teeth.
Gerard decided to ignore that. “We’re hungry. When can we eat?”
“We’ll talk about that after lockdown,” the guy said. He beckoned to the escorts, who pushed Mikey and Gerard through the door and down a long hallway. They cut Mikey’s zip-tie first and shoved him into a bare room, his escort following, and Gerard barely caught his furious glare before they locked the door and dragged Gerard to his cell.
It was a bare cement-block room, with a piece of a window up by the ceiling and a bucket in the corner. No bed. No blankets. A camera blinked its red light from up in the corner. Gerard only had a second to glance around while they cut his ties, then the man in black said, “Strip.”
“What?” The man took a step forward and Gerard stepped back. “Why?”
The man took another step, and Gerard’s courage receded. “Fine.” He pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the floor, kicked off his shoes and yanked down his pants. “There. Happy?”
“Everything,” said the man, and by now Gerard was too tired to kick up a fuss. He took his underwear off and tossed it beside his pants. “What the fuck ever,” he muttered.
“Pick them up and put them in the hallway,” instructed the man.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” snapped Gerard, but he bent over and picked it all up and tossed it out the door. The man didn’t say a word, just stepped out after it. A second later Gerard could hear a bolt sliding home. The door didn’t rattle when Gerard twisted the handle, and when he kicked it, there was barely a thud. He slid down the wall and reached without thinking for a cigarette.
Desert Rock Academy is a private college preparatory boarding school for boys ages 13-18 who have had difficulty adjusting to more traditional scholastic settings. Located in the high desert of Arizona, our program redirects students’ unhealthy impulses and provides a framework for academic, emotional, and social success.
Students of Desert Rock Academy live and work in a family setting, with 24-hour supervision and guidance by trained staff. As they advance through our six-stage behavioral curriculum, students learn to take on responsibility appropriate to their age and emotional levels, and develop self-esteem and a sense of self-reliance. Graduates of Desert Rock Academy routinely go on to excel in high school and college.
If you believe that your son is heading down the wrong path, call our admissions office today to discuss a placement at Desert Rock Academy.
Brendon sat with his arms around his knees, squished up as tight as he could get in the corner furthest away from the bucket. Far away, he could hear the faint thud that had started last night and still hadn’t stopped.
It was the first night away. It was bound to be bad. Last night’s dreams had been a mishmash of images he couldn’t remember now, but they’d left him shaken and with a sour taste in his mouth.
It would get better. He just had to work, like he promised, and he’d get better, and he’d go home and things would be even better than they were before. No more guilt, no more sneaking, he’d fit in perfectly, just like he always wanted. Everyone would be happy.
He jumped when the bolt snapped back and the door opened. The man who came in wore a black t-shirt and jeans, black boots, and a scowl. He tossed a pile of clothes to the floor, Brendon’s glasses on top. “Get up.”
Brendon wanted to stay into the corner, but this wasn’t going to work if he didn’t follow orders, so he stood up and kept his hands at his sides. He wasn’t sure when the training was going to begin.
“Get dressed, stupid. You think I want to stand here and look at your dick all day?”
Oh. “No, sir. Sorry, sir.” Brendon grabbed his glasses, then slid on the white briefs and the straight-legged jeans, and pulled the white t-shirt over his head. It was way too big; the armholes hung halfway down his sides and the hem ended up a couple inches above his knees.
“Tuck it in,” said the man. “Don’t be sloppy. That’s not gonna fly here.”
“I wasn’t trying to be sloppy,” Brendon explained. “It’s just, is there something smaller?”
The man took a fast step forward, and Brendon flinched back. “What’s the matter,” the man said, “you need something tight? Something to show off to all the boys, is that it?”
“No, I--” Brendon said, but the man rode right over him. “Don’t give me that bull. I know why you’re here, and you can be damn sure you won’t be allowed to parade around in your skin-tight clothes, shaking your ass and licking your lips and begging to suck cock every night.”
Brendon had never heard language like that. He didn’t know where the man had gotten his impression; hand-me-downs had ensured Brendon had never had skin-tight anything in his life. “I don’t, I don’t do that,” he stammered. “I just meant--”
“Tuck your damn shirt in,” said the man, “before I start docking points.”
Pete’s mouth was gummy and tasted foul. The wind didn’t bring any relief from the heat, just stole the moisture from his body. He stood at attention like he’d been told, and he waited.
The counselors brought a couple more guys to stand beside him, dressed like he was in white t-shirts and jeans that hung off their hips and straight to the ground. One of the guys had dyed black hair and smeared eyeliner. No guesses why he was here. The other two were littler, even smaller than Pete, and one of them had a bulge around his hips where he’d tucked in the excess from his shirt. Pete closed his eyes and wished for a drink of water.
“Welcome,” boomed a voice, and Pete’s eyes shot open again. “I’m Dr. Thorne, the director here at Desert Rock, and I’d like to welcome you all to our family.” Even the counselors stiffened. Oh Christ. Pete needed something stronger than water for this.
“You’re all here because your parents believe you will benefit from a more structured program than you’ve had before this. You’ll find this structure chafing at first, I won’t lie. None of you have the self-discipline that it takes to become productive members of society, so we now have this opportunity to provide you with that discipline and help you grow into the men we know you have the ability to become.” Dr. Thorne was a big guy with thinning hair, who looked like he’d been sunburned once and never healed. He was out of place in his tie and slacks with the sun beating down and the wind whipping sand around them.
Another counselor in black stood beside him, and Dr. Thorne put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “This is Mr. Paul, the counselor for House Honesty. Behind you is Mr. Ratliff, the counselor for House Cooperation. They’ll explain the rules you’ll have to start with. Pay close attention and give them your utmost respect.” Mr. Paul and Dr. Thorne nodded to each other. Pete licked his lips.
“All right, listen up,” said Mr. Paul. “Like Dr. Thorne told you, Mr. Ratliff and I are house counselors. That means we are in charge of all your daily and nightly activities. We are your fathers while you’re here, and we expect you to give us the respect and obedience a father deserves.”
A piece of grit blew into Pete’s eye. Beside him, the eyeliner guy sneezed.
“Standing behind you are your guides. They live in your house, and are responsible for you until you graduate to Level Two. As Level One students, you do not have the privilege of privacy. Your guides will be with you every minute of every day. They will escort you to your classes, to physical training, to meals, everywhere. They will enforce the rules, and you will obey them as you would obey a counselor. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” said one of the little guys, while Pete and Eyeliner both nodded. The other little guy didn’t say anything, just stared with a fixed jaw at Mr. Paul.
Mr. Ratliff stepped up and slapped the silent guy in the back of the head. “You answer a counselor when he speaks to you.”
Before anyone else could react, Eyeliner sprang at Mr. Ratliff, yelling “You don’t fucking touch him!” He tried to punch him, but he wasn’t very good at it, and in a second Eyeliner was down on the ground, Mr. Ratliff’s foot on his back holding him there. A kid in a yellow shirt held Silent’s arms behind his back to keep him from launching into his own attack.
“Gerard!” yelled Mr. Paul. He came and stood by Eyeliner’s head. “You speak with respect. You respect your counselors, you respect your guides, and you respect your fellow students, do you understand?” He stepped on the back of Gerard’s neck and ground his face into the dust.
“But he--” sputtered Gerard.
“Do. You. Understand?” The foot pressed down.
“Yes,” said Gerard, his words smeared against the dirt. Pete couldn’t look away.
“Yes, what?” The foot remained against Gerard’s neck.
Mr. Paul took his foot off. “Get up.” Gerard did. His shirt was stained with red dust. “Apologize to Mr. Ratliff.”
It took a second for Gerard to get the words out. “I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“Now apologize to your fellow students,” said Mr. Paul.
“I’m sorry,” Gerard said again, glancing at Pete and the little guy, who looked like he was about to wet his pants.
“Now apologize to me.”
Gerard shuffled his feet. “Fine. I’m sorry.” He looked up defiantly, but Pete recognized the fear behind it.
“If you can’t be polite, Gerard, you’ll go to Reflection until you can. Want to give that apology another shot?” Mr. Paul wasn’t fucking around. Pete didn’t know what Reflection was, and he didn’t know Gerard, but he tried to beam his thoughts into his brain anyway. Say it. Fucking do it.
“I’m sorry,” said Gerard, and this time he sounded at least half sincere.
“You’re sorry, what?”
Gerard’s lips thinned, and for a second Pete thought he was about to launch another half-ass attack, but he just said, “I’m sorry, sir.”
Mr. Paul waved to the students behind them. “Your guides will take you on a tour of the facilities and will help you get settled in. I’ll see you again at dinner formation.”
Brendon kept his mouth shut as Ryan, his guide, steered him, one hand on his shoulder, one on the wrist drawn up behind his back. Mr. Paul had said they weren’t allowed to speak unless asked direct questions. Not until they got to Level Two. Brendon wasn’t going to do anything to mess up, even though silence was really, really hard.
“This is our house,” said Ryan. “House Honesty. Mr. Paul is our house counselor, so you do everything he tells you without arguing.”
“Okay,” said Brendon. There was a sudden pain in his shoulder as Ryan jerked his arm up behind his back. Oh jeez, he’d forgotten the first rule already; what kind of stupid was he that he couldn’t remember something simple like that? “Sorry,” he added. Ryan pulled his arm up higher.
“Don’t talk,” hissed Ryan. “You fucking idiot, keep your mouth shut.” Brendon winced, nodded. The pressure on his arm eased up. Sorry, he wanted to say again. He didn’t.
Ryan guided him inside and through the door to the left. The room had two sets of bunk beds, with another bunk in between, up against the wall. Ryan led him to a bed. “This is your bunk. You’ll keep your clothes in this locker here. You have two sets, and you’re responsible for keeping them clean. Don’t ask for more; you won’t get them and you’ll lose points besides.”
Brendon nodded. He was learning.
“Do you have to go to the bathroom?” Ryan asked.
Brendon nodded again. Ryan rolled his eyes. “Stupid, you can answer when someone asks you a question.”
“Yes?” said Brendon tentatively.
“Don’t you know?” asked Ryan. “How stupid are you? Can’t you tell if you have to go to the bathroom or not?”
“I-- yes,” said Brendon. “I do.” He was full to bursting, honestly. Ryan brought him into the bathroom. There was a toilet, a sink, and a drain in the floor. Ryan leaned against the doorjamb, folded his arms, and waited.
“I need to go,” said Brendon.
“So go,” said Ryan.
“But-- can you turn around?” Brendon asked.
Ryan shook his head. “Eyes on your newcomer at all times,” he recited. “That means in the shower, on the toilet, whatever. Waiting isn’t going to make me look away, so you might as well just go.”
Brendon squirmed. A blush ran up the back of his neck, but he ducked his head and unzipped. When he was finished, “Wash your hands,” said Ryan.
“I was going to,” said Brendon over his shoulder. Ryan waited until he was done, then grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. Pain lanced through Brendon, and he yelled.
“That’s the third time,” said Ryan. “If you had any points, I’d tell Mr. Paul he should take them away.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Brendon without thinking.
Ryan squeezed again, making Brendon yelp. “You’re really stupid, you know that?” he said conversationally. “You’re never gonna get out of here.”
They took Mikey away.
They took Mikey away.
Gerard had to fight down the panic that had settled in his chest. God knew he didn’t want Mikey to be here, but to have him here and not with Gerard was too much.
His guide Bert was steering him across the bare dirt of the yard and towards a long two-story building beside the main house where they’d all been held. “They’re gonna cut your hair,” said Bert. “You can grow it out again when you’ve earned the privilege. You’re gonna have to wash your face too; you look gay.”
Gerard sent a black look at the ground, but didn’t say anything. Bert didn’t look that strong; he could probably overpower him without a problem, but what then? Even if he made it over the fence, what then? He’d get caught easily once he was out in the desert, and he didn’t know which direction to go anyway. Besides, Mikey was here. It was his fault Mikey was here.
He twisted his head to see where Mikey had gone, where Adam had taken him. Bert shoved him forward and pressed his thumb against a pressure point in Gerard’s wrist. “Turn around.” Gerard grunted, but obeyed.
Bert directed him to the kitchen, where a big bald man was supervising the boys washing dishes. “Mr. Hall?” said Bert. “This is Gerard. He’s a newcomer, and Mr. Paul told me to bring him in for his haircut.”
Mr. Hall lifted an eyebrow. “They gave you a guide position?”
“Yes, sir,” said Bert. Gerard wanted to roll his eyes at how lame-- how syncophantic-- Bert sounded. “I made Level Four last week.”
“Good to see you’re working the program finally,” said Mr. Hall. “Okay. Are you boys going to be all right on your own?” he asked the room at large.
“Yes, sir,” they all chorused.
Mr. Hall pointed at a boy in a faded purple shirt. “Matt, you’re in charge. You two,” he said to Bert and Gerard, “come with me.”
He led them to a bathroom, stopping on the way to pull a set of clippers out of a closet. Bert maneuvered Gerard in front of the sink, facing the polished-metal mirror. Gerard could see the beginnings of a sunburn on his forehead and nose. Oh God, he did not want to be here, in the sun and the heat and with everyone constantly ordering him around and yelling at him. At home were his pencils and markers; at home the basement was cool and dark and he didn’t have to pretend not to be scared, because he wasn’t.
Mr. Hall plugged in the clippers, and Gerard watched as he dragged them over his head, sending chunks of black hair to the floor. He remembered dyeing it in the bathroom at home, getting Mikey to make sure he hadn’t missed any spots in back. Gerard’s ears stuck out now, and his cheeks looked rounder. He kept his eyes on his reflection until Bert bent him over the sink and Mr. Hall turned on the water and rubbed his head, rinsing off the leftover hair.
Bert pulled him back upright. “Clean your hair up,” he said. Mr. Hall stood back and let Gerard scrape together the remnants of his hair, tossing them into the trash can. Bert nudged him. “Say thank you.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Gerard, because Mr. Hall was bigger than Mr. Ratliff and Gerard didn’t want to end up on the ground again.
“You’re welcome,” said Mr. Hall. “Bert, take him back to the kitchen. I’ll get him a copy of the handbook.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bert. They went back into the kitchen, where two of the younger guys were fighting over something. Matt didn’t seem inclined to stop it. “So what did you do?” asked Bert in a low voice.
Gerard swallowed. “Huh?”
“What did you do to get put in here? You must have done something. No one’s here for no reason.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Gerard’s head felt prickly and strange under his hand. “They said I threatened my English teacher. I drew a picture, it wasn’t her, but they thought it was, and they said-- but it wasn’t. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to draw.”
Mr. Hall came through the door then-- “Alex sprayed Ian with the sink hose, sir,” Matt said as soon as he saw Mr. Hall-- and Gerard shut up. Mr. Hall handed Gerard a spiral-bound book. “This is your handbook. Study it. Memorize it. There’s going to be a test tomorrow. Until you pass, you can’t start earning any points, so I suggest you study hard.”
Bert hooked a finger through Gerard’s belt loop and pulled him away.
Desert Rock Student Handbook
Welcome to Desert Rock Academy. The court or your parents have sent you here because you have become uncontrollable and a danger to yourself or others. Here, you will learn to respect your parents, your teachers, your counselors, and yourself. How soon you learn this is entirely up to you.
Desert Rock is run on a point system. In order to graduate, you must earn 2000 points. Points will be awarded or deducted at the discretion of your house counselor and the counselors-at-large. A loss of points below the minimum amount for your level will result in your return to a lower level. Loss of points can also result in other consequences, such as additional physical exercises or time in reflection.
To reach the next level, you must accrue the following number of points:
Level 2- 50 points
Level 3- 100 points
Level 4- 200 points
Level 5- 400 points
Level 6- 1000 points
Graduation- 2000 points
Points are awarded for going beyond the minimum required by academy rules. Points are deducted for any infraction of the rules. There is no appeal for points deducted by a house counselor or counselor-at-large.
Dinner was its own fucked-up situation. It was “family-style,” which meant their house counselor sat at the head of the table and they all handed the food around and said things like “Please pass the salt.” Pete’s family hadn’t sat down to eat together since a couple Thanksgivings ago, and that ended with Mom yelling at his sister about being anorexic, and his sister screaming back that it was her body and everyone should just leave her alone. Passing the salt was the least of anyone’s worries.
Not that Pete got to ask for the salt, or anything else. Gabe ladled out what they said was beef stew into Pete’s bowl and filled his glass with water. Pete stared at the stew. Greasy droplets of fat floated on the top, shimmering and round. He poked at it cautiously with his plastic spoon.
“You have a problem with your food, Pete?” Mr. Ratliff’s voice was calm.
Well, actually... “No, sir,” said Pete.
“Whatever you don’t eat will be served to you for breakfast. And for lunch. Until you’ve finished it, so I suggest you eat it now.”
Gabe nudged Pete. “Eat your damn stew,” he whispered. “I’m not losing points because you’re picky.”
Pete glared at Gabe. Fuck you, he growled in his mind, fuck you and your fucking mother and your fucking cocksucking father you fucking cocksucking asshole. He didn’t say a word, but Gabe must have been able to read his mind, because he pinched at Pete’s side through his T-shirt, and twisted. Pete yelped.
Mr. Ratliff slammed down his spoon. “What is your problem, Pete?”
Pete had his arm pressed tightly against his side. “What’s my problem? This guy’s been riding me all day! He’s pinching my shoulder and my back and my side and it really fucking hurts, and okay, I don’t know all the rules yet, but dude, can you cut me a fucking break on my first day?”
Mr. Ratliff stood up. He didn’t say a word. Pete shrank back-- “Okay, okay, I’m sorry”-- but it didn’t stop Mr. Ratliff from grabbing him by the arm and dragging him upright. “Five points off, Gabe. You’re supposed to keep your newcomer under control.”
Gabe looked like he wanted to protest, but all he said was “I’m sorry, sir.” I will get you later, his eyes promised Pete. Pete was too angry to care. As Mr. Ratliff hauled him away, he flipped Gabe off. It made him feel a little better.
That feeling lasted until Mr. Ratliff pulled him upstairs and into a tiny room, even smaller than the one he’d spent the night in. Concrete walls, concrete floor, a fluorescent light in the ceiling, but no furniture, not even the bucket the last one had. "Lie down," Mr. Ratliff ordered. "Face down, hands at your sides. There's always someone on camera duty, and if you break position, that's more time you'll add to your punishment. One boy spent two months straight laying on his face. If you don't want that, you follow the rules and learn from this, understand?"
"Yes, sir," came Pete's voice, blurry against the floor. He had to play the game in order to get out; he’d gotten that loud and clear. Mr. Ratliff closed and locked the door behind him. Pete was alone.
It wasn't terrible at first. The floor was hard, but it was cool, and it felt good to lie down after a day of being dragged around by the wrist. Pete relaxed, and that lasted for about half an hour. Then he started to get twitchy.
Pete was used to being active, was the thing, and if he wasn't feeling down, he slept maybe four hours a night. He spent hours on AIM, or playing Warcraft, or sneaking out and going to shows and creeping back in before anyone knew he was gone. He didn't lie still. He didn't stare at concrete so close to his nose that his eyes wouldn't focus.
For a little while, just wiggling his foot satisfied the urge to move. But then it wasn't enough, and he had to kick minutely from his knee. Then the twitchy sensation moved to his arms, and he had to press them against the floor to keep them from flailing. He wanted to jump up and run like he did at school, chasing the soccer ball with every muscle in his body. His lungs would pump, his arms and legs would fly, and he could control how every part of him moved, from the whip of his head to the solid kick he gave the ball. Oh God, he wanted to run.
Pete breathed deeply and knocked his forehead against the floor. He couldn't move. It would just make the torture last longer, and he didn't know how long it was going to be as it was. Two months. He couldn't imagine laying in one spot for two months. He'd lose his mind.
His arm jerked, and he clamped it to his side. He had to play along if he wanted this to end. He'd run when they let him up, he promised himself, he'd run and run and never stop.
Gerard hated running.
He trailed the pack, breathing their dust and stumbling along slower and slower. “Commit to be fit,” they chanted over and over, but he could barely breathe, let alone shout stupid slogans. God. He needed coffee. He needed a cigarette. He needed not to be running.
“Move it, Gerard!” yelled Mr. Dennison, one of the counselors at large. Gerard looked at him incredulously, and slowed down further, just as the sun broke over the hills. The counselor strode forward with the sun at his back, like an avenging god ready to smite. Gerard stopped, took a step back, and Mr. Dennison grabbed his arm and slammed him back into the chain-link fence.
“You have a bad attitude,” Mr. Dennison growled. “If you don’t try, you won’t succeed. You’ll stay a screwup and a loser your whole life, is that what you want?”
“Maybe,” said Gerard back in his face. Mr. Dennison shook his head and let go of Gerard’s arm.
“You get another five laps. ‘My smart mouth makes me look stupid.’ Say it loud so I can hear you.” The rest of Gerard’s family had finished their run and were standing across the green, catching their breath.
Gerard shook his head. “I’m not saying that.”
“Six laps. Get going.”
Bert jogged over to where they were. “Mr. Dennison, sir? Gerard is my newcomer; is he going to Reflection? Because I have to take him and get him out if he is. I can’t leave him alone.”
“He’s not going to Reflection,” said Mr. Dennison, staring into Gerard’s eyes. Gerard stared right back. “He’s going to run laps for me, right Gerard?”
“I’ll run laps,” said Gerard, “but I’m not singing your goddamn jingles.”
“Your choice,” said Mr. Dennison. “Ten laps and you shout it out so I can hear you across the yard. Or stay quiet, and run until sundown.”
“You have thirty seconds,” said Mr. Dennison, stepping back and looking at his watch. “Twenty-five. Twenty.”
Shit. Fuck. Shit. Okay. They were only words. He didn’t have to listen to them. After repeating them a few times, they wouldn’t even make sense anyway. It’d be better than running out here all day. Gerard would never normally have expected anyone to follow through on a threat like that, but one day spent in this place had opened his eyes. If he ran in the sun, he’d get heatstroke, or heat exhaustion, or whatever people got when they didn’t stay inside like normal people.
“Time’s up, Gerard. Make your decision.”
Gerard pressed his lips together. He turned and began to jog away. “My smart mouth makes me look stupid,” he chanted, and hoped it would turn to gibberish before he’d finished the first lap.
After reveille and morning formation, Brendon followed the line to breakfast. Ryan was right behind him, a hand on his shoulder that pinched when he did something wrong but was mostly just there.
Brendon waited to sit until his counselor told him to. It meant he was left standing until everyone started eating, but eventually Mr. Paul pointed at him and said, “Sit.”
It was eggs, scrambled until they were rubbery and hard, a slice of white bread, and a banana. Brendon put all thoughts of bacon and waffles out of his mind and ate as fast as he could to catch up with the others.
“Brendon,” snapped Mr. Paul.
Brendon’s spoon froze halfway from his mouth. “Yes, sir?” Everyone at the table was looking at him.
“Eat like a human being. If you want to gobble your food like a dog, we can arrange for you to be served like one.”
“I--” Brendon felt pinned by everyone’s gaze. “Yes, sir. I mean, no sir, I don’t want that. I’m sorry.” Unseen, Ryan’s fingers pinched Brendon’s thigh hard. Brendon yipped, then took a drink of milk to cover it.
He ate slower then, matching his mouthfuls to Mr. Paul’s, so at first he didn’t notice Ryan whispering. Not until he felt Ryan kick something under the table. “Come on. Bill, seriously.”
Conversation was a low buzz across the room. Level Twos and up were allowed to talk, though quietly, but Ryan looked around to make sure no one saw before whispering again. “Bill. William. They’re gonna put you on peanut butter again.” Across the table, William twisted his spoon into his eggs and didn’t look at Ryan. Ryan nudged him with his toe. “You’re gonna get sick.”
“I don’t care,” muttered William, and let scrambled egg crumbs drop from his spoon. There was a sign around his neck. Confront me about my lies.
“They’re gonna say you’re trying to kill yourself,” Ryan said. “They’ll drop you back.”
“I don’t care. Leave me alone.”
Ryan blew out a breath. “Fine. Whatever. It’s your fucking neck.”
Brendon blinked and looked around for Mr. Paul, who’d left the table and was talking to another counselor. Swearing wasn’t allowed, and the handbook said he was supposed to report any rule violations. He raised his hand halfway before he realized what he was doing.
Brendon wasn’t a tattletale. Not as a kid, when he found Mark drinking Coke in the garage. Not when he was in seventh grade and saw a group of high school kids passing around a cigarette that someone said was marijuana. He spoke a lot without thinking, it was true, but he’d never let out a secret that wasn’t his. He didn’t have a lot of friends to appreciate this trait of his, but that was okay. Someday he would and they would be happy that he could be trusted with confidences.
He put his hand back down before Mr. Paul saw it. Ryan didn’t notice. That was okay, too. Even if he was Brendon’s guide and kept hurting him, Brendon wasn’t going to tell on him. He was better than that.
Gerard staggered as Bert dragged him inside by the belt loop. He’d missed breakfast and lunch, but he was dizzy and felt kind of sick. All he wanted was some water and a chance to lie down in a cool dark room. It was pretty clear he’d get neither.
His house sat in a semicircle with a bunch of guys from another house. Their counselor stood at the back of the room, his arms folded, while Mr. Paul stood by the circle with a notepad and pen. “Get up, Eric. It’s Gerard’s turn.”
Eric was a green-shirted Level Three who vacated his chair in the middle of the circle as fast as he could. Bert dragged Gerard to the chair and sat him down. Gerard stared at the rest of the guys staring back at him. His cheek twitched.
“Welcome to Circle, Gerard," said Mr. Paul. "Tell us what brought you here to Desert Rock."
Gerard blinked. “What?”
“You heard him,” snapped one of the kids from the other house.
Gerard rubbed his forehead. His head ached. "My parents hired armed guards," he said.
“No crap,” said someone else. “Why’d they have to do that?”
"I don't know. I didn't give them any trouble. Nothing that deserves to be in jail here, anyway."
"Bull," spat one of the kids. Gerard looked at him in astonishment.
"What do you think about what Gerard said, Tom?" asked Mr. Paul.
"It's bullcrap," said Tom. "Everyone's here for a reason. You don't get sent here without having screwed up your life."
"My life's not--" Gerard began, but Mr. Paul cut him off. "Gerard. You don't answer until he's done. When he finishes, you say 'thank you' and that's all."
Gerard blinked. "Wait, what?"
Mr. Paul turned to the first guy. "Explain it to him, Sean."
Sean gave Gerard a smirk. "We're here to help each other. We keep you accountable."
"We don't let you lie to yourself or to us," put in a guy who couldn't have been older than Mikey.
"We call you on your crap," said Sean, "so when we're done, you say 'thank you.' We're just trying to help you."
"So wait," said Gerard, "I'm not allowed to talk--"
"I know you understood when I said it the first time. So shut up and listen to Tom. Go ahead, Tom."
Tom scowled at Gerard. "You need to admit to yourself why you're really here. You'll never get better if you don't."
Gerard wanted to protest, but another glance at Mr. Paul made him keep his mouth shut. He folded his arms instead and stared back at Tom.
"Mr. Paul?" said Tom.
"Go ahead," Mr. Paul said.
In a second, Tom was standing in front of Gerard, thrusting his face up against his. "Respect others," he yelled. Gerard jerked back, but there was nowhere to go. "Respect your family and respect yourself."
Jesus fuck, Gerard didn't know where to turn. "Say thank you," instructed Mr. Paul.
“Okay, okay, goddamn, thank you, okay?"
"That's a five-point loss for swearing," said Mr. Paul. "You're at negative points, Gerard. That just makes it that much harder to get out of Level One."
It was insane. Gerard wanted to laugh, because the world had gone completely fucking mad, and apparently so had he, because he said "I'm sorry," and it didn't sound sarcastic.
"You were probably on drugs," said a skinny guy with zits around his mouth and across both cheeks. "Weren't you?"
“He’s an alcoholic and a drug addict,” said Mr. Paul. “His parents put up with him for too long. When he threatened to torture and kill his English teacher, they realized he needed more help than they could give him.”
The room was silent. I did not, Gerard raged silently. He managed to keep his mouth shut, but gripped the orange plastic chair with both hands.
“You’re a terrorist,” said the skinny guy, a note of awe in his voice. Gerard shook his head. “Yeah, you are,” said the skinny guy.
“You’re a serial killer,” said a curly-haired kid.
“That wasn’t it,” said Gerard, “it wasn’t her, it wasn’t anyone, it was just a character.”
“Shut up,” said Tom.
“Did you think you were cool?” asked the skinny guy. “Did you think threatening her made you a man? You’re not. You’re pathetic.”
Gerard looked around. There wasn’t a sympathetic face to be seen. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
"What should he do, Ryan?" asked Mr. Paul.
"He should get his head together and work the program so he can get straightened out," Ryan said, leaning forward. "He needs to learn that he he’s responsible for his own mistakes. If he doesn't, he's never gonna get out of here."
“Max,” said Mr. Paul, pointing at the curly-haired kid.
"You're a loser," said Max, his voice breaking high then dropping deep. "You'll always be a loser if you don't quit your loser activities--" he stopped to clear his throat-- "and quit being a loser. Loser."
That didn't even make sense. "Thank you," said Gerard.
It went on like that for what felt like forever, everyone telling Gerard what a rotten guy he was, how if he hadn’t made it to Desert Rock he was sure to have gone to jail for life. Gerard thanked each one of them when they were done. At the end they chorused “We love you, Gerard,” and he sat with shoulders hunched, just trying to get himself pulled back together.
"Time for lunch formation," said Mr. Paul, snapping his notebook closed. "Tom, Sean, Max, Ryan, five points each."
"Thank you, sir," they chorused. Everyone got into line, Gerard standing up when Mr. Paul gestured to him. Bert came up behind him, pulled his wrist up behind his back, and put his other hand on his shoulder to guide him. He dug his thumb into the nerve leading to Gerard's hand, and Gerard instinctively tried to jerk it away. "Better cut that out, loser," said Bert in his ear. He giggled. "You got less than zero points. You're gonna be at Level One forever if you don't shape up."
Gerard wanted to scream. He wanted to get Bert's hands off him, push him away and go somewhere he could be alone and where no one would yell at him.
The sound of the bolt snapping back woke Pete from his doze. He couldn't remember what time it was. He knew he heard reveille a while ago, but he had slept at least a couple times since then, and he might have missed taps, or a second reveille, or who the hell knew what.
It made Pete dizzy to even sit up, let alone stand. "I said get up, loser." Gabe towered over him, and for a second it looked like he was going to topple down on Pete. Pete reached out a hand for help, but Gabe stepped back.
"No touching, jerk. You know that. I know you read the handbook; I watched you do it. Are you so stupid you forgot that quick?"
Pete had, actually, but he didn't say it. He climbed to his feet, swaying a little, and Gabe took hold of his belt loop and tugged. Pete followed. They went halfway down the hall to the bathroom, and Gabe stood back and watched while Pete took care of business, the back of his neck crawling. When he'd washed his hands, he looked hopefully to Gabe and raised his hand like he was in class.
"Nuh-uh," said Gabe. "No talking. Don't even fucking think it."
Pete's eyes widened. One thing he knew beyond a doubt by now was that swearing was forbidden. "No," said Gabe, and yanked Pete forward by the wrist. "I'm Level Four. You're Level One, and you're in Reflection anyway. No way will they believe you, so don't even. You're gonna go back and lay on your face like a good boy, and maybe they'll let you out this week. Or, y'know. Maybe not. Not if I tell them you talked, or that you wouldn't go back into your room."
That dick. Pete stared at him as they trotted along, trying to convey I am going to fuck you up to the back of his head. He couldn't be that scary to Gabe, who had at least a foot on him and probably sixty pounds as well, but that didn't mean Pete couldn't find a way if he put his mind to it.
"Down," said Gabe. Pete glared at him, but got back onto the floor, his joints screaming in pain even before he made it all the way down. "Just remember," said Gabe before he closed the door and the bolt clicked into place.
Yeah. Pete would remember. Gabe better believe it.
Brendon stared down at his algebra book. It was battered, and someone had written “THORON SUXXORS” in brown crayon along the edges of the pages. The handout Mr. Robinson had given him was photocopied to the point of illegibility. He traced one of the numbers lightly-- was that an 8? 3? 5?
He looked up. Everyone else around him was silent, heads bent over their work. He raised his hand tentatively, but Mr. Robinson saw him and shook his head. Brendon frowned. He knew he wasn’t supposed to talk normally, but this was school, shouldn’t that be an exception?
No help from up front, so Brendon craned his neck and tried to see what Ryan was doing. Maybe his paper was more readable. He’d just gotten a look at the equations, which didn’t look like the ones Brendon was working on, when a hand descended on his shoulder and he yelped. It dragged him to his feet. Mr. Robinson’s face was thunderous.
“This is exactly why your parents sent you here,” said Mr. Robinson. “Cheating disrespects me, your fellow students, and yourself. You can’t cheat on life, Brendon.”
“No sir,” said Brendon, “I know, I was just--”
“Yes sir, but I raised my--”
“You don’t learn, do you?” Mr. Robinson let Brendon go and pointed to the ground. “Twenty pushups.”
Brendon was terrible at pushups. Gym had never been a problem for him, he loved all the running around and jumping and throwing, but even his gym teachers knew that when it came to group exercises, Brendon was hopeless. More than one had let him skate by, thanks to his enthusiastic participation in everything else. Mr. Robinson was not going to be one of those people.
He got down on the floor and balanced on his hands and toes. He could feel his arms trembling already. “Count them,” said Mr. Robinson, and Brendon said “Yes sir,” to the ground. He lowered himself down until his nose touched the floor. His arm muscles shook. He had no idea how he’d make it through this. “One.”
Exercise is the key to developing a young man’s sense of health and self-esteem. At Desert Rock, we provide numerous opportunities for physical activities to promote healthy lifestyles. Our students gain strength and endurance through our variety of exercise and sports programs. Even those who have previously seen themselves as unathletic find that they have more inside than they dreamed of.
Gerard’s mouth was drier than sand. The red dirt under his battered sneakers was packed hard by hundreds, maybe thousands of exercise sessions. They jumped, jerking their arms up and down, chanting, “My parents know what’s best for me!” They did squat-thrusts to the accompaniment of “Commit to be fit!” Pushups and situps were just counted out, but it finished off with another five laps of the fence, all of them shouting, “Self-respect begins with me!”
Gerard really didn’t think he was going to make it. The laps this morning had worn him out, and from the start, he could barely manage a squeak. He mouthed the words as he stumbled along, hoping no one would notice. The edges of his vision began to sparkle and turn black. He needed to lie down. He needed water. He needed a fucking cigarette--
It took a second for light and sound to come back to him, and he found himself staring at a rock half-buried in the dirt. Oh. Hi, rock, he thought.
Gerard blinked at the rock.
“You think you can take a nap whenever you feel like it? Up!” It wasn’t the rock, it was Mr. Dennison coming toward him. Before Gerard could say anything, Mr. Dennison grabbed him by the back of the neck and dug his fingers in. Gerard couldn’t get enough breath to yell.
“I’m tired of your whining,” growled Mr. Dennison, “and I’m tired of you playing sick whenever there’s something you don’t want to do. Do you want me to take away more points? You want to go further into the hole than you already are? Because I can arrange that.”
Gerard shook his head.
“What?” Mr. Dennison yelled.
“No, sir,” Gerard said, coughing on dust, “I’m not, I fell--”
Mr. Dennison let him drop to the ground. “Stop faking. You’re never going to get anywhere by lying or blaming others for your problems.”
Gerard hadn’t mentioned others, but it was becoming clear to him that what he said didn’t mean shit to anyone in charge. It was no use. He used the chain-link fence to inch upward until he was standing.
“Move,” said Mr. Dennison, and Gerard stumbled forward again.
I’m supposed to write down what I feel. I don’t know what to say. I’m scared. They yell at me all the time, and it’s like they think I’ve done something terrible, but I don’t know what. I didn’t want to be this way. Okay, that’s not true. I’ve thought about kissing other boys since I was little. It just felt right. So I guess I did want to be like this, because it felt good to me. So I guess that’s my fault.
I wish I could just be fixed. If I were fixed, I could go home to my family. Desert Rock is supposed to make it so I don’t want to be like that anymore, but I don’t know how there going to do that. It’s just the second day, though, so maybe it comes later. I’m trying the best I can to obey the rules. I guess maybe the fixing part comes later.
I wish they would stop yelling at me. I’m trying.
At the call to stop, Brendon handed his journal up to Mr. Paul. He flipped through it and raised his eyebrows. “I expect to see more details tomorrow. You won’t be able to process your problems until you lower your defenses and admit them.”
Brendon wasn’t sure what that meant.
“You don’t need to hide from us,” said Mr. Paul. His tone wasn’t unkind. “We’re all here for you. We want to help you through this.” He looked at Alex.
“You can admit anything to us,” said Alex. “You have to, if you want to get better.” His eyes flicked to Mr. Paul for approval.
“You can’t hide your problems,” said Max.
“They’ll just get worse,” said Sean.
Mr. Paul handed Brendon’s journal back to him. “Tell Brendon how we feel about him,” he said.
“We love you, Brendon,” said everyone. Everyone but Gerard, who was a Level One like Brendon, and who couldn’t speak either. He looked at Brendon, and his eyes were sad.
Pete hurt. Pete fucking hurt.
His arms weren't twitchy anymore; they were numb. He tried to ease his weight forward and ignore the grinding pain in his shoulders, but when he'd released enough of the pressure his hands started tingling, then went into such intense pins and needles that he shifted back and groaned out loud. Numbness was better, if more worrisome. He remembered Mr. Ratliff telling him about the kid who'd spent two months like this. He doesn't know how the kid's hands didn't drop off. Or maybe they did. Fuck.
Pete tried to imagine the scene-- so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Wentz, but Pete just wouldn't listen so we gave him a month on the floor and then amputated his hands-- but it struck him as more than a little probable, and not funny at all. Oh God, this hurt.
"Please," he muttered. The faint strains of taps drifted down the hall and under the door. Pete pressed his forehead against the floor and groaned again.
The wall had a crack in it. Pete's eyes had been tracing the crack for longer than he could remember. Sometimes he closed his eyes, but the crack was always there when he opened them. Crack. Crack. Crack. The word got meaningless after a while.
It was a relief, how slow his mind had gotten. He wasn't entirely sure of the difference between sleeping and waking; he might be dreaming about the crack, or he might be dreaming that he was asleep and dreaming about the crack. It didn't matter; it all felt the same.
He woke up a little more when Gabe came to take him to the bathroom or to give him a soggy sandwich. Pete didn't try to talk anymore. His anger was buried under mountains of apathy.
Sometimes he'd dream he was stumbling around, trying to make someone realize his arms were falling off, and he'd wake up with sharp shooting pains in his arms, or legs, or back, or neck. He tried to adjust minutely, but eventually the pain went away anyway, so it really didn't matter.
Sometimes Pete couldn't remember what he'd done to end up here. Sometimes the dinner confrontation replayed behind his eyelids in vivid color.
He slept. Or maybe he didn't. It didn't matter.
Brendon had thirty points. He treasured them in his mind. Thirty points. Only twenty to go before he got to Level Two, got that blue shirt and was allowed to speak again. He wasn’t sure who he’d even talk to, but the point was that he could. He’d have to watch it, because he couldn’t just ramble here like he could when he was home, keeping a running monologue for anyone who’d listen, but there had to be spaces to talk here and there. All he had to do was figure out what he could say that wouldn’t get him in trouble.
Brendon frowned at his page of definitions. He knew what “divulge” and “histrionics” meant, but he’d never heard of “levigate.” He fiddled with his crayon.
He could talk to Ryan. Ryan wouldn’t even have to speak to him first. He could talk without worrying about Ryan’s long, bony fingers digging into his neck or elbow, making his eyes water. Ryan probably wouldn’t answer, because Ryan was a Level Four who followed the rules and was trusted to guide Level Ones, and Brendon would just be in Level Two and not worth talking to yet. If he worked hard, though, if he worked and went up the levels fast (and he would, he’d promised his mom and dad and himself), he and Ryan might become friends. Ryan would say something like man, it’s hot today and Brendon would nod and say it sure is. Ryan would smile at him, and if there weren’t a no-touching rule, Brendon would throw his arm around Ryan’s shoulders, and Ryan would let him.
They would be friends, because Brendon would have gotten up so high, they would probably be Level Fives at the same time, and Brendon would be cured by then. He wouldn’t be thinking about Ryan’s big hands, imagining how they’d feel cradling his hips, or about Ryan’s mouth on his, how his tongue would taste and how his lips would get red when Brendon nibbled on them.
Oh no. Brendon squeezed his thighs together and hunched over his worksheet and hoped no one would see. He had to focus. Thinking like this would never help him work his program. Imagining all this... stuff about Ryan was just going keep him from going home ever again.
He nearly yelped when a hand landed hard on his shoulder. “If you can’t keep your mind on your work,” said Mr. Robinson, “you can do squats until it comes easier.” He snapped his fingers. Brendon got up and put his hands on his hips and followed the count, up and down. He needed this. He needed the program, because if he wasn’t fixed, he’d never be able to leave.
"Up with hope, down with dope!"
"Getting wasted wastes your life!"
"Using is losing!"
Gerard was at the tail end of the pack, but at least he was keeping up. It helped that his caffeine headache had burned itself out a week ago, though his temples still throbbed and he would have happily murdered his parents for a cigarette. He couldn't stop thinking about it. He fucking dreamed about cigarettes, the soothing sweetness of nicotine flooding his body, and when he woke up, his eyes were wet and his hands shaking.
"Save your lungs, save your life!"
"Drugs are wack so watch your back!"
"When you smoke, you’re a joke!"
He stopped to bend over and cough up gunk from his lungs. It came out yellowy-green. "Get your rear in gear, Gerard!" he heard, and he straightened up and stumbled along.
"No excuse for drug abuse!"
The line of guys was stretched out along the fence, groups of two and three jogging together, a few on their own. Gerard fell further and further behind, until he couldn't hear what motivators they were shouting. "Using is losing," he mumbled in time with his steps. He'd go louder if Mr. Dennison yelled at him again, but until then he'd do as little as he could get away with.
"Drug free is the way to be!" he heard coming up behind him. Great. He was getting lapped, and if he couldn't finish in time with everyone else, he'd miss lunch. He hated the food, like he hated everything else about this place, but he was always hungry and shitty food was better than no food.
"You better move it along, loser," said the guy behind him. That skinny blond fucker could move, Gerard had to give him credit for that. "See what happens when you smoke? You're a joke!" Bert giggled at his own wit, and pounded past Gerard. Gerard discreetly flipped him off, and jogged a little faster.
"You know what would be awesome right now?" he muttered to himself. "A fuckin' joint. A bottle of Jim Beam. A fuckin', fuckin' gram of fuckin' smack, that would be fuckin' awesome." He didn’t need needles; he’d snort it, swallow it, whatever it took. "Getting wasted wastes your life!" he shouted.
"Coke. I want a goddamn eightball." That'd get him moving to the front of the pack. "Couple bumps of crystal. Stoli, Beefeater, Absolut... Booze makes you lose! Booze makes you lose!" He was catching up to Ryland and Nate, who weren't chanting at all, which pissed him off. If he was yelling these lame-ass motivators, where did they get off slacking? He kept up the chant until he passed them, then eased off and started muttering again. "Skyy. Jonnie Walker. Acapulco Gold. Sugar Skunk. Marlboro Reds..."
Uncountable meals. Uncountable bathroom breaks. Uncountable hours where he lay unmoving, afraid that any too-violent twitch would start the count over, and he'd never be allowed to get up again. Uncountable letters to his parents started in his mind: Dear Mom and Dad, how can you call yourselves parents? Dear Mom and Dad, I am never forgiving you for this. Dear Mom and Dad, what did I do that was so bad you sent me to hell?
When the bolt clicked back and the door opened, Pete wasn’t sure he could get up. He wasn’t sure he cared, not until an unfamiliar voice spoke behind him. “Up.” It startled him into moving, his too-numb hands pressing at the floor till he could get his knees under him and stand. Gabe was there, and so was a counselor. "You ready to play by the rules yet?" the man asked.
Pete looked down at the floor and nodded. Gabe didn’t say anything, just took hold of his shoulder and steered him down the hall and down the stairs into the cafeteria. Pete blinked. There was light here, and the noise of a roomful of guys coughing, sneezing, talking, eating. After the silence of Reflection, it was a cacaphony. Gabe squeezed the nerve at the base of his neck before letting him sit down, and Pete grimaced, but he’d grown used to the flare of pain and it didn’t bother him as much anymore. He sat down and looked at lunch, lukewarm hot dogs in limp buns and milk that smelled not-quite-off but was probably still drinkable.
"Did you enjoy Reflection, Pete?" asked Mr. Ratliff. Pete shook his head. Gabe poked him hard in the side. "Answer Mr. Ratliff."
"No, sir," Pete said. He kept his eyes turned down to his plate.
"Are you going to make me send you back there?"
"Are you going to listen to Gabe when he corrects you?"
"I'm only trying to help you learn," said Gabe in the most sanctimonious voice Pete had ever heard.
"Thank him," said Mr. Ratliff.
“Thank you, Gabe,” Pete muttered. Somewhere down deep, a tiny spark of anger flared.
Gerard couldn't numb himself to what went on in Circle. He'd almost rather have been outside, tripping over rocks and grabbing the fence to catch himself on a neverending circuit of the camp. Even when the insults weren't directed at him, they cut his emotions raw. "You're so sensitive," his mom used to say. “We all have to walk on eggshells around you."
Gerard couldn't help it. Sticks and stones his ass, he'd rather take a punch to the face than hear another dissection of his character flaws, or watch someone tear up as yet another humiliating memory was flung at them. He wondered if the people who dreamed up this torture knew what it did to the rest of the guys around the circle.
He was waiting slumped over for Circle to start, but he sat up straight when Bert punched him between the shoulderblades. Edge of his seat, eyes straight ahead, he resolved to hold his position and avoid attention as best he could. If they didn't notice him, they wouldn't call on him, and he could escape at least one session without making himself sick.
It was another ten minutes of sitting silently before the other house filed in. Mr. Paul frowned and tapped his watch, but the other house counselor shrugged. "Sit down," he ordered, and his boys sat on the edges of their own seats, backs straight. "Mikey. You're first."
Gerard's head whipped around before he could think. Mikey walked up to the center chair and sat down, and Gerard honestly thought he might throw up. Mikey looked... well, he looked mostly okay. Dusty, like they all were, maybe a little thinner, closed off like he was in all unfamiliar situations. Only Gerard would see the tension in his shoulders and jaw. Only Gerard knew how that tension was his fault.
"Tell us why you're here, Mikey," said his counselor.
Mikey's lips pinched together, but he spoke. "I was rude and disrespectful to my parents. I stayed up late, I skipped school, and I listened to satanic music."
The thing was, their parents didn't care about shit like that. Mikey only missed school a couple of times, and Mom had been fine with writing him a sick note.
"I drank sometimes." Mikey shifted in his seat. "I didn't try in school."
"Don't pull that crap around us," said his counselor. "Tell them what you did when the transporters came to get you."
Mikey's mouth quirked ever so slightly. Probably no one else saw it. "I stabbed one of them with a pen. I think he had to go to the hospital."
Mikey's counselor stepped back and nodded, and everyone's hands shot into the air. A lanky guy with hands and feet too big for his body was the first one to be called on. "You proud of that, loser? You think it's funny to assault someone?"
"You could go to prison for that," said a blond kid. "You want to go to prison? Think you'd be a tough guy there?"
"You know what they'd do to you in prison," said the lanky kid. "You'd end up someone's bi--" He swallowed the rest of the word. "You're lucky you came here instead."
Mr. Paul looked around for raised hands. Gerard couldn't, he couldn't, but if he didn't it was like begging for a turn. He raised his hand and tried to think of a god to pray to that he'd melt into the crowd.
"Bert," said Mr. Paul. Gerard was so relieved he almost passed out.
"Are you trying to hurt your parents?" Bert asked. "They gave you everything. Who do you think you are, throwing that back at them? You think you're special? You're not. You're filth. Prison is too good for you."
Gerard wasn't a violent guy, but he could have beaten Bert into a bloody paste right then. "Thank you," said Mikey, his expression a blank.
It went on from there, one guy after another telling Mikey what a jerk he was, Mikey thanking them each time. "We love you, Mikey," everyone chorused when the counselors decided his time was up. Mikey walked to his seat, his back as straight as Gerard's.
They picked someone next from Gerard's house; he didn't pay attention to who. Mikey was almost out of sight in Gerard's peripheral vision. Gerard didn't want to let him go.
"Hurry up, Brendon," snapped Mr. Paul.
Brendon jumped and dropped the soap, blushed and tried to maneuver himself around to pick it up without showing any embarrassing body parts. He scrubbed himself down as fast as possible, aware of Mr. Paul's eyes on him the entire time. Maybe the academy was working, because he wasn't aroused by this at all.
As soon as he could, he grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his waist. He brushed his teeth fast, kept his head down, and went back to the locker at the foot of his bunk. It was a struggle to get into his underwear and t-shirt while he was still wet, but he managed.
They all stood at attention by their bunks while Alex from Responsibility played taps out on the green. A night breeze drifted through the open window, raising chill bumps on Brendon's skin, and stirring up the stench of too many guys in too small a space. When the song finished, everyone got into bed. There was no talking.
Brendon was so tired, but each time he drifted into sleep, something-- a dream of falling, a sudden muscle spasm, a snore from the next bunk-- jolted him awake. After the fourth time, he wanted to kill something or cry. “It’s okay,” he whispered to himself. He took deep breaths to calm back down. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
He’d just gotten his heart to stop pounding when shouting floated in from another part of the compound. He jerked upright. Who had permission to be up after taps? And why were they calling attention to themselves? If Brendon were out there in the dark, he wouldn't be yelling, he'd be...
No. No he wouldn't, because he needed to be here so he could go back home. He dreamed about home some nights, about Dad showing him the chords on the guitar, or the airplane rides he got from Mike even after Brendon was far too old for them. So no, Brendon wasn't going to jeopardize his chances of returning, certainly not by dreaming of running silently into the desert and away from here.
Another shout floated in on the breeze. Brendon strained to hear, but couldn't make out any words. "...winner..." he thought he heard, then Ryan's bony fingers clenched around his wrist and he almost screamed.
"Lay down," hissed Ryan. "Go to sleep."
It was the first time since he'd gotten there that Pete had attended class. It was a joke.
He didn't care much about school; it was where he dicked around with his friends, played soccer, and scrambled to bullshit essays twenty minutes before they were due. It wasn't a joy, but there were worse places to be. Desert Rock Academy made New Trier High look like fucking Harvard.
They had crayons, honest-to-fuck crayons to write with. Pete's was purple, and worn down until it was almost flat at the end. His worksheet was a list of words in Spanish, with space on the other side to write the English translation. He knew most of them from Spanish class last year, and took a stab at the ones he didn't. He finished his stupid purple-crayon worksheet and went up to the counselor at the desk to turn it in.
"Here." The counselor handed him an answer sheet.
Pete frowned at it. "What?" He caught sight of the counselor's face. "I mean, what, sir?"
"You check it and see which answers you got wrong." The counselor's voice had an I-know-you're-stupid-but-try-to-understand edge. "Then you see what the right answers are."
"I don't..." get graded? He didn't ask. "Yes, sir." How he was going to pass this year without getting grades, he had no idea.
On his way back to his desk, he heard a sound. Notes. Music? Pete turned around, but there was nothing to see except heads bent over worksheets.
He heard it again when he took the answer key back to the counselor. He recognized it. Open mind for a different view, and nothing else matters. Pete's eyes darted around. He bent for a second and fiddled with his shoelace. Never cared for what they do, he hummed.
Never cared for what they know, someone hummed back.
Jack's hand shot in the air and waved wildly. "Sir," he said when the counselor pointed to him, "someone's making noise, like singing or something."
The counselor looked around. "Who's doing it?"
Pete slid into his seat as unobtrusively as he knew how. The counselor glared at all of them. "No one wants to confess? Fine. Everyone on the floor, thirty pushups."
There was a low grumble, but no one objected. Pete got down on the floor with the rest of them. Maybe he should have felt bad, but he didn't. He'd been in enough trouble already; he wasn't going to open himself up for more. Pushups were nothing in comparison.
Forever trusting who we are, he thought as his nose touched the floor. And nothing else matters.
The laundry was for sheets and towels only. The counselors said it was to teach them to take responsibility for their belongings, but Brendon suspected it was because it'd be too hard to get the right clothes back to each student. So once a week they were handed buckets and a packet of gritty powdered detergent, and they spent an hour trying to get the sweat stains and ground-in dirt out of their clothes. It smelled better in the house on wash days, but it didn't last.
He knelt in the dirt beside Ryan, who was never more than a foot from Brendon's side. Brendon had gotten used to it. Ryan didn't seem to think much of him, but Brendon was used to that from pretty much everyone outside of his family, so it didn’t matter.
"Did they let you have your birthday package?" Max asked Sean.
Sean shook his head. "They're holding it. Mom said she sent it when I talked to her, but either it hasn't come or they're holding on to it. I dunno. I got it like a month late last year, and I think they took the chocolate."
"What's she put in it?" asked Andy.
"Last year I got that book about channeling anger and a t-shirt. They said I can have it back when I leave." Sean squeezed water out of his underwear. "Whatever, y'know? I don't even care anymore."
Brendon scrubbed his socks and tried not to listen. He couldn't help it. He wondered if his mom had wanted to send a package. Even if she had wanted to, even if she had actually sent one, there was no way he'd be allowed to have it. Maybe when he hit Level Two.
"Poor baby," Bert mocked him. "Didn't get his mommy's presents. Mommy must not love Seanny--"
"Screw you," said Sean, but without heat.
"I'm never gonna get a package," Max said. "Neither one of them was even home last time I called. I only get to call once a month, you think they'd try to be around." His bravado was undercut by a gulp at the end.
God. Max was only twelve. Brendon couldn't imagine what he'd done so young to be sent here. And Max was Level Four, and that took time, so-- "How long have you been here?" Brendon blurted out.
Ryan sighed. Bert snickered. Brendon faltered under everyone's gaze. "I mean-- sorry."
Ryan took Brendon's arm and squeezed the nerve below his elbow. Brendon gritted his teeth and took it. It wasn't hard. Ryan was the only person who ever touched him, and if Brendon hadn't been trying so hard to earn his levels, he'd have acted up a lot more just to feel Ryan's fingers on his skin.
"Aren't you gonna--" Nate said, but Ryan cut him off with, "I'll report it when we're done. Wash your clothes."
Brendon scrubbed gloomily. He didn't know why he even tried to wash them; the socks were still stiff with dried sweat, and the shirts had smelled like rancid oil from day one. He knew why Ryan had to tell. If he didn't, someone else would, and then Ryan would lose points for not keeping Brendon in line. Brendon had gotten good at remembering not to talk, but sometimes things just slipped out.
Everyone concentrated on their work, until Max said softly "I was ten and a half. They made a special exception for me. Usually you have to be twelve to go here."
"What did you do?" asked Alex. Brendon was glad someone else had.
Max shrugged. "My parents split up. They're both really busy, so they figured boarding school was the best place for me. I think they thought the program would help me deal with the divorce."
"That's messed up," said Sean.
"Can we not talk about this, please?" Max snapped, looking down into his bucket and scrubbing his t-shirt against the side.
Brendon wanted to tell Max he was sorry. He didn't know how, though, and he wasn't allowed to say it anyway.
fuck, I don't even know. What does "working the program" mean exacly? What did I do? I did what they told me. I kept my mouth shut like I'm supposed to. I didn't get any points because I have no fucking idea yet what I'm supposed to do to get points. Why can't I get points for following the rules? Because I'm doing that. I didn't lose points, because I stopped talking except in circle or rap session, and I'm not swearing anymore.
Today I saw my brother.
Today I learned that the gunk in my lungs is green. I learned that there's no doctor here except for once a week, and if I ask to see him my counselor is going to laugh at me and make me do fifty situps. I learned that I can get a sunburn over a sunburn. I learned that I suck as a person, and everything that's wrong in my family is aparently my fault.
I'm proud that I haven't killed anyone yet. I'm ashamed that I ever did anything to get sent here in the first place. Tomorrow I'll work on keeping my mouth shut and running laps, just like I do every day.
Pete was buckling down. He was going to be a good boy, going to sit quietly and follow Gabe and not open his mouth. The specter of Reflection hung over him, and if he did anything to send himself back there... His resolution lasted even through Gabe's halfhearted arm twists to steer him from class to exercise to dinner to journaling. Pete could take it. He'd had worse in soccer team hazing. This was no big deal.
Journaling, though, kind of was. Pete had never been good at keeping his innermost thoughts on the inside, and given a blank sheet of paper and an order to write down his feelings... well, he burned through two sheets, front and back, and only stopped when Mr. Ratliff refused to give him another. He took an evaluation form instead, and continued on that.
He hadn't expected it to be read. Or, if he'd thought about it, maybe he would have, but he certainly wouldn't have expected it to be read out loud.
you don't come back from the dead when you're in last place and falling behind, and it's hard to control yourself when the plane's in a tailspin and the tank's full of gas. i keep telling myself there's a ladder to crawl up, and there's a light i can see, but it could be the last candle or it could be the golden gate bridge. i don't want to know wich one.
she told me the sea couldn't kill her love for me but i guess it drowned in the desert. all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the coming of the lord, and he's trampling us in his holy image. no one is inocent, but everyone is trying. if god crushes you will you be healed when he lifts up his foot? the further away god is, the better we all feel.
the old man giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. blessed be the name of the father. the son can go fuck himself.
silence is like a mirror it's impossible to break, silvered glass and steel timbers. hands stop talking even when there's no mouth to cover. breath can carry a sound. nothing else matters. if a volcano blows and there's no one there to be covered in lava, does it make a sound? ashes to crashes, trust to dust.
When Mr. Ratliff finished, Pete was staring at the floor, his face on fire, and everyone around him was snickering. Someone flicked a paper wad at his head. Pete batted it away and glared at the general direction it came from. He still didn't speak.
“What is this?” Mr. Ratliff looked patient, but Pete didn’t trust it.
Pete swallowed. “Um. My journal. Uh, sir.”
Mr. Ratliff looked at it again. “‘Are you trying to be a poet? Do you think poetry’s going to get you out of here?”
“No sir,” mumbled Pete, because there wasn’t anything else to say.
Mr. Ratliff wasn’t listening. “Who here liked Pete’s poetry?”
No one raised their hand.
“Pete’s too good to write about his actions and his feelings. He thinks if he writes poetry instead, we’ll think he’s deep. We’ll be impressed with his mind and won’t even notice that he refuses to confront himself and look at the truth. Pete wants to lie to himself and everyone else. Here’s what I think about that.” Mr. Ratliff crumples Pete’s pages into a ball and tosses them into the trash.
“Yeah,” said Cash. “We’re not as stupid as you think we are. We’re smarter than you, poet boy.”
“We know enough to know that we don’t have all the answers,” chimed in Quinn.
“You don’t have anything. That’s why you have to dress it all up in poetry, to hide the fact that you don’t know crap.” Jack was almost bouncing in his seat.
Pete blinked. “Thank you.” It wasn’t Circle, but no one objected. He blinked again and swallowed against the tightness in his throat. He lifted his chin and looked at Gabe, who smirked back. Yeah. Gabe could get fucked.
"Half an hour till lights out," said Mr. Ratliff. "Travis, lead the family back to the house."
“Yessir," said their peer captain, a tall Level Six in a purple shirt. He collected the crayons and papers, and in short order the family was lined up, Level Ones at the front, and moving in single file toward the lights of the houses. Pete sighed, and wasn't sure if he'd lie awake after all the time he'd spent lying down, or if he'd fall asleep as soon as he was on an actual bed.
Travis stopped the line when they got to the steps of the porch. "Mr. Mayers?"
"Take the family out to the field." Mr. Mayers' voice was high for someone so big. He pointed past the house, and Travis turned around and boomed "Everyone stay in line," before leading them off into the dark.
Pete couldn't tell if this was normal. Mr. Ratliff had said to go back to the house, but everyone else seemed okay with this, and it would be sheer idiocy to stop everyone and ask for an explanation. He followed Adam, who walked quietly behind Mikey, and waited to be told what to do next.
The field lit up when they walked into it, triggering the motion-sensitive lights and an alarm that whooped for a few seconds before shutting off. Mr. Mayers emerged from behind the generator shed with a scowl. "Fucking thing." He kicked it.
The light outlined the clumps of dead grass sharply against the chain-link fence, and haloed the fuzz of the desert weeds before disappearing into the black. Pete rubbed his arms to keep the chill away as Travis chivvied them into a circle maybe ten feet across. He looked to either side, trying to see if they knew what was going on.
A counselor Pete didn't know stepped forward and handed Travis a box. He reached in, pulled out a slip of paper, and passed it on. Around the circle it went, and when Pete pulled his out, it said... nothing. Just a blank piece of paper.
"Fuck," he heard Gabe say quietly. Several others must have heard it as well, but no one said anything. Gabe crumpled his paper in his hand.
"Who's on deck?" called the counselor. Gabe raised his hand. Across the circle, so did Mikey. There was a moment of quiet, then a roar of laughter from the seven or eight counselors who'd gathered around.
"Place your bets, gentlemen," called Mr. Ratliff. "I'm giving five to one. Five to one, who wants action?"
This had to be the most fucked up thing Pete had ever witnessed. In the corner of his eye, Gabe looked murderous, but when Pete turned to see, Gabe was grinning at Mikey like they were old buddies. "Don't worry, hombrecito," he said. "It won't hurt much after the first minute."
"All right, Gabe!" cheered one of the kids. Gabe bowed. Mikey didn't move or speak, just watched behind smudged lenses.
"Okay!" Mr. Ratliff shouted. "Contestants in the ring. We find you faking hurt or throwing the fight, your asses are headed to Reflection." Mikey and Gabe stepped into the ring, Gabe bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One!"
Before Gabe could move, Mikey launched himself low and hard and slammed into Gabe's shins. Gabe lost his balance, and while he tried to catch himself, Mikey scrambled behind him and nailed him in the back of the knee. Gabe went down instantly, amid the shouts from the counselors and Pete's maniacal laughter. Mikey drove his fist into the back of Gabe's thigh, then into his kidney. Gabe yelled and clawed at the dirt. Mikey rolled to his feet and stomped on Gabe's calf. He let Gabe get to his knees, then tackled him back down. Gabe floundered to throw Mikey off, but Mikey clung like grim death and sank his teeth into the back of Gabe's neck. Gabe let out a howl.
Mikey worked with terrifying speed. Gabe never had a chance. It was only a couple minutes before two counselors entered the ring and dragged Mikey off; he thrashed for a second, then went limp. Gabe lay curled up in the dirt, harsh breath puffing steam from his mouth.
The other guys didn't care who won; they cheered Mikey as loudly as they'd just cheered Gabe. The counselors who'd bet on Mikey were gleeful, while the losers just grumbled. Mr. Ratliff stepped into the circle and nudged Gabe with his toe. "Get up."
Gabe stood with difficulty. He hissed when he put weight on his leg. "Get going," said Mr. Ratliff. Gabe took a step and his leg buckled instantly.
"Up!" said Mr. Ratliff. Gabe wasn't grinning anymore. His face was set in cold concentration, and sweat had broken out on his face. He pushed to his good foot and tried again, and again went down. "Sir, I can't," he said. "I'm sorry. I can't walk, I'm sorry."
"Travis!" yelled Mr. Ratliff. Travis jogged up, and Mr. Ratliff pointed. "Make sure he gets back to the house. Don't help him. The rest of you, come with me."
Pete obediently fell into line. Mikey was still in front of him, Adam's hand tight on his shoulder. He wasn't even breathing hard. As they followed Mr. Ratliff to the house, Pete turned back to look. Gabe was crawling, dragging his leg behind him.
Today in Circle Nate confornted me and made me realize that I'm the way I am because I wasn’t disiplined. My parents let me get away with things, because I'm the youngest, and they weren't strick with me like they were with my brothers and sisters. I didn't get that they were damaging me by letting me do my own thing. If they'd treated me like they treated them I would have turned out fine like they did.
I earned points today cause I volunteered to clean the house toilets, and even Mr. Paul said I did a good job. I lost them though because I didn't rember to wait for Mr. Paul to start eating before I did and he sent me away from the table, so I didn't eat the food I was given and that's wasteful.
Today I learned that my parents might not always know what's best for me. If they had wouldn't they have punished me more so I would turn out okay?
I'm proud today cause I got all the questions right on my math homework.
I'm ashamed cause I should of paid more attention to what I was doing and not been rude to Mr. Paul and my housemates.
Tomorrow I'll contribute in Circle and I'll listen to the criticism I get in rap sessions and learn from it.
The jar went around the circle as they all stood shivering in the floodlights. William's eyes were hidden in harsh shadows, and his cheekbones stood out like planes of broken glass. His spidery fingers reached in and pulled out a slip of paper, crumpled it, passed the jar on. It went to Max, to Sean, to Brendon and Ryan, and when it came to Gerard, he reached in and took one.
He opened it. There was an X scrawled on it. He frowned and looked up. Ryland was handing the jar back to Mr. Paul, and it struck Gerard how weird it was that Ryland was almost a foot taller than his counselor, and how fucking deferential he was to Mr. Paul's every move.
"Right," called Mr. Dennison. "Who's up?"
Andy came forward, squaring his shoulders. Gerard looked around, but Bert whipped his slip out of his hand, squinted at it, and shoved it back against Gerard's chest. "He is!"
It all clicked into place then. The circle, the lights, the avid looks on the counselors' faces-- Gerard looked at Mr. Dennison. "I'm not doing this."
"Place your bets!" shouted Mr. Robinson.
"No," said Gerard. It was clearer than anything had been in weeks. "No, I'm not gonna do it."
"Let's go," said Mr. Paul as if he hadn't heard. "No faking injuries, no taking dives, or you'll be running for a week."
Andy stepped up, and Gerard took a step back. They pushed him back into the circle, and he dug his feet in. Mr. Paul frowned. "Gerard!" he barked. "Get your ass over here now!"
Gerard felt lightheaded, and his hands looked like someone else's as he took hold of his paper and ripped it in half, then half again. He let the pieces fall, and looked into Mr. Paul's face. "No," he said.
Gerard's breath whooshed out when he hit the ground, his arm forced up behind his back. The voice in his ear was so loud he couldn't make out the words. After that, things got very confusing.
Brendon gave Jim an uncertain smile. "Why'd you bring me back here?"
"Sssh," said Jim. "It's okay." He put his hands on Brendon's shoulders and pulled him close. Their lips touched. For a breath, everything was still.
Then Jim's mouth came down hard on his, and Brendon kissed back frantically, all strictures against it forgotten as if they'd never existed. Jim pulled him closer and Brendon put his hands against the pebbled concrete and pressed against him. It was like drinking after a year in the desert.
That's how it had happened, but this time it went further. Brendon rubbed up against Jim's thigh, and Jim pushed him back and unbuttoned Brendon's jeans. Before Brendon knew, Jim's hand was inside his pants, and Brendon couldn't help the noise he made or the spasms in his legs that made him hang on to Jim's shoulders so he wouldn't fall down. The feeling ripped through him and everything in the world blacked out.
And Brendon woke up, throbbing and gasping and sticky, and thought he was going to die.
He had been trying so hard, so effing hard, not to think about any of this. No one gave him any advice, other than 'quit being a fag and disgracing your family,' and yeah, that was what he needed to do, but nobody told him how. He was on his own, and he was doing his best, and now look.
He felt cautiously around him. The sheets felt dry. If it was just in his pants, he could take care of things without anyone else finding out, as long as he was quick and quiet. He eased out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom, squinting against the light that was always on in there.
The toilets and sinks were on either side of the showers, separated from the main part by four-foot walls. It was supposed to keep them all accountable to each other, no one sneaking in to get forbidden privacy.
Unless it was the middle of the night. Unless everyone else was asleep, and you figured no one would hear if you were careful. Unless you were Ryan Ross, with your eyes closed and your pants around your thighs and your hand cupping your balls while the other one worked your--
Ryan's eyes snapped open--
They stood there frozen, staring at each other. Brendon's heart sounded loud in his ears. He didn't think he could ever breathe again. He didn't think he could ever think again.
Ryan gave him a spiky glare, a hint of desperation underneath. Brendon swallowed. "I--" he said, even though he wasn't supposed to. "I didn't mean to, uh..."
"Shut up," Ryan hissed. "Get out of here. Get the fuck out of here."
Brendon's eyes dropped to Ryan's hands. He-- it was so-- oh God, Brendon shouldn't look, he shouldn't see that. "I'm. Sorry, I'm gonna just..." He stepped back and almost tripped, but caught himself before he made any noise and brought down the wrath of heaven upon their heads.
"You don't say a word," Ryan hissed again, and it almost looked like he was going to cry. "You tell anyone, and I'll make sure you never make it out of Level One ever."
Brendon shook his head. "I won't," he whispered. "I don't do that." He turned around and crept back to bed, so quiet he could hear Mr. Paul's tiny snores in the next room.
He was still sticky. There wouldn't be an opportunity to rinse out his underwear, so he was just gonna have to deal with it and hope no one could smell it on him.
A second later, he heard Ryan sneaking back, settling into bed with a sigh. Brendon stared at the bunk above him. As his heart slowed to its normal pace, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He willed himself to sleep, and not to think about what he just saw.
Gerard landed on the floor, dazed, his nose bleeding and his wrist throbbing from where he fell on it. He tried to curl up, but the counselors jerked his legs straight, picked up his head by the hair and slammed his forehead against the floor.
"You think that was noble?" The voice wavered in and out of his ears as he tried to blink some sanity back into the situation. "You think you're some kind of Gandhi or something? Think again, loser. No one's here to join your little protest. You don't impress anyone; you just get to serve time laying on your face for no reason other than your own stupidity. Tell me next week if you think that's worth it." A foot landed in Gerard's ribs, and he grunted and curled inward. The counselors straightened him again, and the kick came harder. This time Gerard stayed still. There was one more kick, then just the sound of heavy breathing, his, theirs. Hairs crawled on the back of Gerard's neck. A bubble of bloody snot blew out of his nose and popped.
"Think about it." They left him with that parting shot, slamming the door and turning the lock with more vehemence than he thought was justified in his condition. He wasn't a threat to a mouse right now.
Slowly, Gerard got his breathing under control. He still wasn't clear on what had happened exactly-- he remembered up until he ripped the ticket, then everything was a jumble of shouts and fists and his arm wrenched behind his back until he was afraid it would rip out of its socket. It still hurt. He flexed it gently.
His nose hurt too, but it had stopped bleeding, and when he pressed it against the floor it only twinged a little. It probably wasn't broken. He snorted back bloody phlegm, turned his head and spat it as far away from himself as he could. He tested breathing-- he could breathe without stabbing pains, so his ribs were okay too. Nothing broken. He settled down to think.
He still had principles. He hadn't been sure, since so much of what went on here involved compromises with himself. Gerard's own vision of who he was had gotten confused, but he had clarity now; he made his decision and he stuck with it. He was himself again. No matter how much abuse his body took, it was worth it.
Gerard slept on and off that first night. He knew from listening that Reflection meant lying still for days at a time, so he was prepared to spend the day lost in his own head, alone and quiet for the first time in weeks. Which meant that he was completely unprepared for someone to come banging into his room and yank him off the floor before he could even begin to move.
"Come on, Sleeping Beauty," said Bert. "No naptime for you." He wrenched Gerard's arm up high and shoved him out the door, where a counselor waited to escort them. "You don't get to lay around and wait for people to bring you food," Bert hissed in his ear. "You are going to pay. Do you even know how bad you made me look?"
The wind was whipping up the ever-present red dust on the empty parade ground. Bert shoved Gerard so hard he went sprawling. "Get up," said Bert. His breath was coming in angry stuttering gasps. "Get up and start running. You're gonna run for me and Mr. Greenbaum, and you're gonna shout it out loud so we can hear you no matter where you are."
Gerard struggled to his feet and looked from one to the other, waiting to be told what to say. Mr. Greenbaum spoke for the first time. "Obedience is paramount."
Gerard blinked. He bet Bert didn’t even know what paramount meant. He turned around and started jogging before Bert could shout at him again. "Obedience is paramount,' he called, "obedience is paramount, obedience is paramount."
He ran. And ran. Long after dust choked him and reduced his chanting to a rasp, he ran. The sun rose higher, scorching his arms and the back of his neck. He kept his head down and ran. "Obedience is paramount. Obedience is paramount."
Everyone turned out for lunch formation. He kept moving, oblivious to whether they were watching. "Promedience is baramount. Opredience is paracount." He was so focused that when someone grabbed him by the arm, he almost fell down.
"Hey there, smart guy." Mr. Paul shook him, and Gerard's arms flopped like a rag doll's. "What are you saying?"
Gerard had to get it straight in his mind first. "Obedience is paramount," he said slowly. His mouth was gluey and his lips felt cracked.
"Uh-huh. Paramount? Do you like using big words, smart guy? Think you're smarter than everyone else?" Mr. Paul shook him again. "You bought yourself another five-mile trip. 'I'm not as smart as I think I am.' Go."
Gerard looked around, but Mr. Greenbaum and Bert had gone back inside at some point. He hadn't-- they had said-- but they weren't here and Mr. Paul was. "Sir, please." Gerard swayed a little, caught himself before he lost his balance. "Please can I have some water?"
"You get water when I think you deserve it. Get it in gear."
Gerard would have cried if he had enough moisture left in his body for tears. "I'm not as smart as I think I am." He turned and limped into a jog. "I'm not as smart as I think I am."
On his fourth circuit, he collapsed. Mr. Paul yelled at him, but gave him water, which Gerard gulped down until he threw it back up. Mr. Paul yelled at him again, and Gerard sobbed in a messy ball on the ground until Bert and Mr. Paul dragged him to the side of the admin building and sprayed him down with the garden hose. They took him back to Reflection after that, leaving him facedown and dripping. "These are the consequences of defiant behavior, Gerard," said Mr. Paul. "If you want to keep it up, that's your decision, but you'll reap the results of your actions. We won't let you get away with avoiding it. We love you too much to do that."
Gabe couldn't walk for three days, and had to crawl from their house to classes to Circle. On the fourth day Mr. Ratliff made him try to walk, but he fell, and his face was so white that Mr. Ratliff didn’t even accuse him of faking. It took another couple days before he could bear weight on his leg, and he limped around, gritting his teeth, head bowed and shoulders tensed. Mr. Ratliff yelled at him for being lazy, but Gabe didn't answer back, just said "Yes, sir," and kept apologizing. He didn't lose points, so he must have been doing something right.
Mikey said the bare minimum he could get away with. Pete was pretty sure he was almost at Level Two, and he could have gotten there with a little effort, but Mikey didn't even try.
Pete was caught between the two. He didn't want to be like Mikey, stuck at Level One forever, unable to talk without permission or go anywhere without a guide. On the other hand, submitting like Gabe to Mr. Ratliff's abuse tore at something in Pete's chest. He couldn't do it. He knew what he had to say, knew the attitude he had to take, but he just couldn't. It was unfair; it went against everything right and good in the world, and yeah he'd been told often enough that life wasn't fair, but knowing that and believing it were entirely different things.
Gabe still stuck with Pete. If he couldn't keep up, he kept his hand on Pete's shoulder and held him back to Gabe's pace. Pete didn't bitch much about that, even in his own head. He hated Gabe as much as he hated everyone here, but Mikey had been fucking brutal.
It was a pain in the ass while they were running, though. Pete and Gabe had been having an unacknowledged race, Gabe running out ahead thanks to his long legs, Pete determined not to be left behind. Right now, Pete could lap Gabe twice before they were done, but Gabe kept two fingers in Pete's belt loop, and maybe Pete could get away and run his laps on his own, but he didn't want to risk it. Going back to Reflection was not in his game plan.
Besides, Pete had been noticing things. Like a scrap of paper dropped on the floor as a guy from another house passed by Gabe. Like Gabe bending down to tie his shoe and palming it. Like a low voice murmuring words Pete couldn't make out while he and Gabe stood in the cafeteria line. Like sidelong looks, lifted eyebrows, and tiny nods or shakes of Gabe's head.
And that was outside their house. With the guys in their family, Gabe talked, joked, even laughed a little bit. All on approved topics, of course; any forbidden words were punishable, and if a counselor didn't hear it, a student would be sure to tell.
The thing wasn't just that Gabe was friendly. It was that others were friendly back. Even Jepha, who didn't like anyone, or Jack, who’d report a sneeze, seemed to like Gabe. Adam called him Gabanti, which Pete didn't really get, but Mr. Ratliff didn't call him on it, and Gabe smiled when Adam said it.
Pete might have even been getting to like Gabe.
Might. Gabe was still a pain in his ass, even more so after Mikey beat the shit out of him. He kept Pete on a short leash, and Pete wasn't about to forget Gabe's part in him going to Reflection. No, on second thought, Gabe sucked. He hated Gabe.
Mikey, though. Mikey was awesome. Not only was he a terror on the battlefield, he was just so cool. Like he was locked in here, but none of it was touching him. Like he didn't even mind it. He didn't say anything to anyone, and no one said anything to him.
That was why it was so weird at breakfast when Mikey lifted his eyebrows to Gabe, and Gabe nodded back. Pete couldn't figure it out. When had they become buddies? Gabe and Pete were together every minute of every day, even at bathroom time, which Pete still wasn't pleased about. Mikey had never spoken a word in Pete's hearing that wasn’t part of Circle. So what was this with the secret signals and mysterious looks? If Pete could have talked, Gabe would never have known a moment's peace until he told him everything.
They were supposed to be enemies. It was weird. Even in this bizarro world of points and consequences, it was very weird.
It’s important to obey. I have to obey my parents, my counselors and my guide, because their trying to make sure I turn out okay. They have my best interests in mind. I need to listen to them because my perspective on my own actions is limited and they are able to see further down the road.
Obedience is important for everyone. Soldiers have to obey their commanding officers for a squad to become a cohesive fighting unit. I don’t believe in war, I think it’s wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that soldiers obey. Priests obey bishops, and they obey the Pope I think. My mother is Catholic but we don’t really go to church. Anyway, the hierarchical structure of the Church means that there’s a clear chain of command and the people on one level have to obey the ones on the next level so the organization has a clear purpose and speaks with one voice. Otherwise it would be too confusing. And look what happens when priests don’t obey. Kids get hurt.
Everyone has to obey the police, otherwise there’s anarchy and the weak would be at the mercy of the strong. Without obedience, society would fall apart and--
Pete had it now. The more he watched Gabe, the more he saw how it worked. Gabe said the right things, he wrote the right stuff in his self-evaluations, he did the exercises, and in return they left him alone. If he got in trouble, he apologized all over the place and acted humble until they were satisfied.
It wasn’t something Pete was good at, but he tried anyway. His journal entries and his evaluations weren't up to par yet, he knew, but when he got a crayon in his hand he kind of went nuts. He couldn’t put together the careful sentences yet, or use the language he was coming to learn from rap sessions and Circle. But in other ways, he was figuring it out. He bellowed out his motivators when they ran, and he didn’t complain when the blisters on his feet swelled and broke. He slapped a grin on his face when he was told to scrub out the showers, and he performed every single chore hypercarefully, whether it was washing their plastic dishes or raking the dirt around the edge of the green into neat lines.
Gabe looked at him suspiciously, but the pinches and arm-twisting subsided as Pete got better at it. And about a month after Pete got out of Reflection, he finished first in his house during evening laps and received the coveted blue shirt.
It was amazing how things eased up after that. Gabe wasn't on his ass every fucking minute of the day; Pete could even go to the bathroom alone after asking permission from Mr. Ratliff. Circle still sucked, but he raised his hand every time, and made up some acceptable shit to say to the poor bastard in the middle. When it was his turn, he tried to tune out the accusations. It was easy when all you had to do was say 'thank you' when they finished.
He hated it still, there was no question about that. The counselors were sadistic bastards, most of them. School was a joke. The days were scorching, the nights were freezing, and he couldn't manage to drink enough water to keep himself fully hydrated. The headaches got pretty bad. But he was doing it. He was learning the system.
And he watched Gabe. He never stopped watching Gabe.
People passed their desserts down to Gabe, and suddenly they got to wash Dr. Thorne’s car for their work assignments, or to use the sharper crayons during class. Higher levels slid Gabe treats from their packages from home. Gabe was careful about what he did for them, and how he did it, but Pete could see. Investment, return. He watched and he learned.
The night he chose to make his move was the night Gabe had gotten a call from his family. He came back from Mr. Thorne's office with that tiny grin that told Pete he was making the right call. There was enough chatter over dinner that Pete could dare to bring it up.
"When is it?"
Gabe didn't look at him. Pete nudged Gabe's elbow. "I know you've got it planned. When?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Gabe out of the side of his mouth.
"Right." Whenever anybody claimed not to know what you were talking about, that was as good as saying they knew exactly what you were talking about. "I'm not gonna tell."
Gabe took a big bite of his sloppy joe. "Nothing to tell," he mumbled as he chewed.
"I don't have to have anything in order to tell." Jesus, Pete had figured that out a long time ago. "I could be making it all up, and they wouldn't care. But if I said something, it'd wreck your plans, or at least mean you'd have to stay longer to let the suspicion die down."
Gabe flicked a glance at him. "Go ahead. You don't know anything."
"Yeah, I do. And that's the point, I'm not gonna go ahead. I'm just letting you know that."
"Fine. You let me know. Eat your food or I'll tell them you're trying to starve yourself."
Pete took a huge bite. "I wanna know when," he said after he swallowed. "Just tell me when."
"Fuck you," whispered Gabe behind his hand. Pete knew he was getting to him.
"You can't do it alone," he pointed out. "You need help."
"I have all the help I need," said Gabe.
Pete grinned. "I knew it. I fucking knew it."
"Shut up. Don't swear, someone will hear."
Pete shoved the rest of his sandwich in his mouth. "Okay," he said when he could talk again. "But just so you know, I'm going with you."
"You know what happens when you don't eat, William."
William just crossed his arms and looked down at the floor.
"You're doing this to yourself," said Ryland.
"Nutrition is the key to a long life," added Tom.
"You think you can manipulate people by not eating?" spat Nate. "That's bull. We see right through you. You’re just looking for attention, and it’s not gonna work."
Gerard felt like he should say something. If he didn’t, he risked being called out for defiance. After what happened before, oh Jesus fuck he did not want to be accused of that. More of the guys were yelling at William, who was still glaring at the floor, arms tight around his skinny body.
Mr. Dennison held up a hand, and everyone shut up. "I need someone to help. Who wants to go to the kitchen and make William a peanut butter sandwich?"
Gerard's hand shot into the air along with everyone else's. Please, please, pick me he silently begged. He waved his hand back and forth. He could make a sandwich, even if William didn't want to eat it; it wasn’t cruel like saying hurtful things. Everyone needed to eat. Nutrition was the key to a long life. He was volunteering, which counted, and if he was picked, that counted even more. Maybe he wouldn't have to yell at anyone at all today.
Mr. Dennison made a show of looking around the circle. Some of the guys were so eager they were bouncing in their seats. "Gerard," he said finally. "Can I trust you to bring William what he needs?"
Gerard was on his feet before Mr. Dennison finished his sentence. "Yes, sir," he said. "Yes, sir, thank you.”
The kitchen wasn't ever empty, but the supervisor let him in and went back to smoking and playing freecell on his phone. Smoking takes ten years off your life he almost said reflexively, but he wasn’t a newbie; he was on Level Two, and he'd learned better than that. He opened the door to the pantry, flicked on the light, and flinched back.
Brendon was on the floor. He was kneeling, head down, his white shirt still proclaiming his Level One status. When the light came on, his head jerked up, and Gerard got a glimpse of his startled brown eyes before he dropped his head again.
"What are you doing?" Gerard asked in a whisper. "What are they making you do?"
"Rice," said Brendon after a moment. Gerard could barely hear him.
It was an ingenious punishment. Gerard hadn't had it yet, but he knew it hurt. They gave you two handfuls of uncooked rice; you scattered it on the ground, took your pants off, and knelt on it. He’d seen Ryland limping after he was allowed up last week, tiny divots pressed into his shins. Brendon's hands were clenched tight on his thighs.
Gerard stuck his head out of the pantry. He could hear the faint sounds of the supervisor's phone game, but nothing else. "Hey," he said to Brendon, voice still pitched low. "Take a break. No one's around."
"I'm not allowed to get up until Mr. Mayers comes back," Brendon whispered.
"Just a little break. Here, I have to make a sandwich. Just take a break until I'm done. I'll stand over here; I can warn you if anyone's coming."
Brendon looked up at him then, eyes wary. Gerard knew. Everyone tells. "I don't care about points," he said.
Brendon's face didn't change, but he slowly pushed himself to his feet, wincing at every inch. His legs were almost as pale as his white briefs and shirt, but for the red patterns in his shins. A few grains stuck to his skin. "Please don't tell," he said, but his voice was hopeless, as if Gerard's tattling was a foregone conclusion.
"I won't," Gerard promised. He grabbed the loaf of Wonder bread and an opened jar of peanut butter, and used the back of a plastic spoon to spread it as thinly as he dared. The thicker the spread, the harder it'd be for William to choke it down. "Why the rice? What happened?"
"I wasn't--" Brendon swallowed. "I was in the shower. I took too long, and Andy came in, and I was-- I was naked. I didn't mean to," he added hurriedly, "it was an accident, but I can't display my body to other men like that, it's wrong, I know that. I need to be more careful. Next time I'll remember."
"But it's a fuck-- a freaking shower room. It's not like there are stalls." Gerard didn't get it. "We all shower together."
"I don't," said Brendon. His voice was tiny, sad. "I'm not allowed."
And well, Gerard couldn't help it. Brendon was so little, and so broken up it hurt like shards of glass. He pulled Brendon tightly to him in a hug. For a second Brendon was stiff, then he sagged against Gerard and his breath came out in a long, ragged sigh. "It's okay," said Gerard. He stroked Brendon's hair. He was a big brother, even if this wasn't Mikey. "It'll be okay."
That's when Brendon jerked away, his eyes wide. "You can't-- we're not supposed to-- I have to tell." He backed away, then turned and ran.
Oh shit oh shit oh shit, of course they weren't supposed to touch, nobody was, but nobody saw and if Brendon could just keep his mouth shut, they would be okay. Gerard picked up the sandwich and left the kitchen at a run, dropping the spoon in the industrial sink. He’d be cool. He'd be okay. He just had to get back with the sandwich, and maybe Brendon might think better of it, and-- oh fuck. Brendon would get points, maybe enough to get him out of Level One, of course he wasn't going to think better of it. Gerard handed it to him on a silver platter.
He had to play it off. Everything would be okay until they came to get him. And they might not; there was a chance. He ran down the hall, thankfully avoiding any counselors, and made it back while William was still in the circle. Mr. Dennison held out his hand, snapping his fingers, and Gerard handed the sandwich over.
The rest of the day was agony. Every minute, he expected doom to descend. Gerard kept glancing around, desperate to see it coming so he could prepare in the few seconds before they took him to Reflection. It wasn’t until they lined up for dinner formation and flag lowering that he saw what happened.
The flag whipped in the wind, the rope banging against the side of the pole. On the opposite side, facing the green, Brendon was duct-taped to the flagpole. He was wearing his underpants, but that was all. Tape stretched around his shoulders, his thighs, his ankles. His hands were secured behind his back. There was a strip of tape over his mouth.
Mr. Dennison was running the show tonight, and didn’t say a word about Brendon. The Level Fives and Sixes lowered the flag and folded it, presenting it to Mr. Dennison with military precision. Mr. Dennison saluted back. He blew the whistle, and everyone departed in neat lines to the cafeteria.
They passed by Brendon on the way. He was wearing a sign around his neck. I CAN'T CONTROL MYSELF.
"You're wrong," said Gabe as he passed Pete. "It's not what you think."
Pete put on a burst of speed and passed Gabe. "So you're going."
"I'm going to be eighteen in October."
Gabe's long legs took him ahead. "They can't keep you here if you're over eighteen. It's against the law."
Pete thought about that for a second. "Up with hope, down with dope!" he shouted as they came out from behind Courtesy and saw the kid on the flagpole, and Mr. Ratliff standing by the green.
"Down with dope!" agreed Gabe, and they chanted until they got to the cafeteria and out of sight of any counselors.
"So you can just walk out of here?" said Pete when it was safe.
"Yeah, if you have somewhere to go." Gabe shrugged and looked through the fence at the fading light of sunset. "I can't go home, but I have a cousin who'll come get me when I call him. They have to give me a ride into town, then I'm on my own."
Pete ran in silence for a while. "I'm almost sixteen," he said. "That's not gonna work for me. I can't wait another two years."
"Yeah, well, a lot of guys do. I knew one who started here when he was thirteen, didn't leave till he was almost twenty-one. Smoking dope won't help you cope!"
"Drug free is the way to be!" responded Pete as Jack came sprinting behind them. They shouted back and forth until he'd pulled far enough ahead that he couldn't hear them. "I thought you said they couldn't keep you after eighteen."
"They can't keep you, but sometimes parents won't take you back until you graduate the program, no matter how old you are. And if they have the money to pay, the school's not gonna make you go."
That thought made Pete's stomach sink. "Getting wasted wastes your life!" he said to cover it up.
"Smoking pot makes your brain rot!" shouted Gabe.
"No excuse for drug abuse!"
"Save your lungs, save your life!"
"Up with hope, down with-- wait, I said that one already."
Gabe broke into giggles. "Dumbfuck. Eat right to live life!"
"I'm gonna report you for swearing. Save your night, caffeine ain't right!"
"Uh-huh, and I'll tell them you told me you're gonna run, and we'll see who gets in more trouble." Gabe's face was unbelievably smug. Pete hated him for a minute.
"So it's graduate or become homeless, huh?" asked Pete when they'd run another lap.
"If your parents won't take you back, yeah." Gabe's mask slipped for a second, and he looked younger than Pete, and just as vulnerable. "My cousin's going to come get me, though. He's-- commit to be fit!-- in Mexico, so it'll take a while to drive up, but I'll just be on my own for a few days, then we'll go back to Mexico together."
It sounded sketchy to Pete, but what did he know about Mexican cousins or anything. "My parents have money," he said after thinking. "They'd keep me here forever. And I'm not doing this for two more years."
"You got no other options," said Gabe.
Pete didn't believe that. There had to be another option. Anything else was unacceptable.
Brendon shivered and watched the last pure blue light fade into darkness. "Quit smoking before smoking quits you!" flitted past on the wind. He couldn't see the runners anymore. He twisted his hands behind him and winced at the tape cutting into his wrists.
He'd had to tell. It was instinctive, the guilt and shame too much for him to keep inside. He was disobeying, he was wrong, he was touching a man, and if he wasn't punished he'd do it again. He wanted to do it again.
It wasn't long before everyone was herded back to their houses, and not long after that till the motion-sensitive lights shut down. Brendon tried to think of warm things. Blankets. Fires. Marshmallows and graham crackers, like that time when he was eight and they went on a camping trip with the whole family, and he'd burned his fingers and tongue on a melted marshmallow, but it was okay because everyone was laughing and he laughed with them, pleased to make them happy.
It didn't work, only made him feel the cold more keenly, and the memory made him feel more alone than ever. He breathed deep and sang inside his head. Little town, it's a quiet village, every day like the one before...
Why was he like this? Why couldn't he stop being like this? What was wrong with him that he couldn't behave like a normal guy his age? Who went around hugging other guys anyway? You didn’t, a part of his mind said, but he pushed it back down. Okay, no, he hadn't started the hug, but he sure as heck had thrown himself into it, hadn't he? And he knew it was wrong. He knew.
Brendon saw his breath in the moonlight. Overhead, the stars were sharp and bright. There must be more than this provincial life...
He sang in his mind, Beauty and the Beast all the way through, then the Little Mermaid, the Lion King and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, finally finishing up with Aladdin. He couldn't tell what time it was, and there was no sound around him other than the yip of desert creatures and the rustle of the wind in the scrub. When Brendon began to fall asleep, the bindings jerked him awake. His shivers gave way to a dull trembling, and he didn't know how many hours passed that way, standing in a stupor with tears leaking down his face, home a constant wish in his memory.
When the sun came up the next morning, Brendon winced against it and stared down at his feet.
Alex from Responsibility came out with his trumpet and bugled reveille. The morning runners pounded the dirt with their beat-up sneakers and chanted, "My parents know what's best for me!" Everyone lined up and the peer captains called out the count. "All present and accounted for, sir!" "Present and accounted for, sir!" Brendon didn't look up when he heard Travie's voice, "One not present but accounted for, sir!" Brendon didn't even care that everyone was staring at him. He slumped against the duct tape and let his mind go.
The day heated up quickly. By ten, Brendon was sweating. By noon, his head ached like it would split apart. By three, Brendon had stopped sweating, and his muscles were cramping until he screamed behind the tape.
They cut him down before dinner formation and ripped the tape off his mouth. He collapsed at their feet, but they prodded him up and let him crawl to Honesty, where he waited on his hands and knees until they told him to get in the shower. He still couldn't stand, but the cool water washed over him and he turned his mouth up to catch every drop he could. He didn't care that he was only wearing underwear. He wouldn't have cared if they saw him naked.
When his head cleared, he pulled himself into a sitting position and looked around through the rivulets still trickling down his glasses. The only one there was Mr. Hall. "I'm sorry," Brendon whispered.
Mr. Hall shook his head. "Kid, you..." He sighed. "I don't know what you did. But I don't think you'll do it again."
Brendon shook his head.
"Come on, up." Mr. Hall helped him stand, and didn't seem bothered by the fact that only a pair of translucent wet briefs stood between him and Brendon's total nudity. He took Brendon by the shoulder and marched him out of the building.
"Am I going to Reflection?" He shouldn't ask, but he had to know.
"Yeah. Too bad. If you’d stop breaking the rules and work your program..." Mr. Hall looked down at him. "You want to move up, right? You want to graduate and go back home?"
"Then follow your handbook. Obey your counselors. You have to try if you don’t want to end up dead or in jail for life."
"Yes, sir," said Brendon again. Had to try? Of course he was trying. He’d never been doing anything else.
"I expect you to keep control, Gabe," said Mr. Ratliff.
"Yes, sir," said Gabe.
"Don't make me sorry we gave you that red shirt. Don't make me have to take it back."
"I won't let you down, sir," promised Gabe, and his voice was full of sincerity. Pete wanted to snicker, but he kept his head lowered and his face still.
"Okay," Gabe said to them, "move it, losers. Get going."
Mikey shuffled to the far corner of the classroom with his broom and dustpan. Pete picked up the bucket of pine-scented water and sponge and began wiping down the desks. After a minute, Mr. Ratliff nodded approval and left.
Pete looked back at Gabe, who looked straight at him without recognition. Pete focused back down on the desk. That was the thing with having a friend at Level Five; you couldn't really be sure he was a friend. Level Five gave him all sorts of privileges he didn't have before. If he decided Pete was expendable, he'd toss him to the wolves without a thought.
Mikey worked without comment. Even though he'd gotten to Level Two, he still didn't talk very much. Pete weighed the pros and cons of starting a conversation. Technically they were allowed, now that neither was Level One, but Gabe got to call the shots and if he felt like it, change the rules. It took Pete a minute, but he'd never been someone who played things safe. "Mikey. Hi."
Mikey looked at him in mild surprise. "Hi."
Pete hadn't thought further than that. "Uh, I'm Pete."
"Yeah," said Mikey. "I know." He reached with the broom for a bit of fluff that'd gotten wedged under a desk.
He couldn't think of anywhere to go after that, so he shrugged and went to wipe down the windowsill. It was another minute before he heard the whistling, and a little longer before he recognized "Exit light, enter night--"
"That was you!" he said, making Mikey jump.
"Hey," said Gabe, and both Pete and Mikey flinched, but Gabe shook his head. "Just keep it down. Way down."
"That was you," Pete whispered. "That time in class. You're the Metallica guy."
Mikey gave a loopy half-smile. "Yeah. You're the other Metallica guy."
"Where are you from?" asked Pete. "I'm from Chicago."
"Hey, me too," said Gabe.
Pete laughed, not that it was funny. This was the most normal interaction he'd had in weeks. "We came in the same time," he said. "The eyeliner guy is your brother, right?"
Mikey nodded. His expression didn't change, but he seemed to get a little sad. "Gerard. Yeah."
"That sucks," said Pete. "Yeah, I have a brother and a sister. They aren't here, though." His stomach twisted. He wondered if they missed him. He wasn't sure he missed them. "What do you do?" he asked to change the subject. "Like, fun stuff. What bands do you like?"
"Anthrax," said Mikey promptly.
Pete waited a second. "Is that all?"
"All that matters," said Mikey.
"Not to bust up the party," said Gabe, "but if you guys don't get this room done in the next five minutes, you're getting consequenced. I'm not letting Mr. Ratliff come back and see you chatting."
"Fuck you," muttered Pete, but turned back and scrubbed at the crayon mark on a desk.
"Better be nothing." Gabe leaned back against the wall and watched them work. He could have helped.
"Do you get to talk to him?" Pete asked after a minute.
"Gerard? No." Mikey knelt down to sweep the pile of dirt into the dustpan. "I see him sometimes."
Mikey looked really sad at that, and Pete regretted saying anything. "That sucks. I'm sorry."
"Yeah," said Mikey. There didn't seem much else to say.
Gabe straightened up then, and his voice took on a snap. "On the floor, loser. Fifty situps." Both of them blinked at him. He pointed at Pete. "Situps. Now."
"I didn't do any--" Pete heard the clack of boots and the squeak of sneakers in the hall and instinctively dropped his sponge and hit the ground. "One," he counted, bringing his elbows up to his knees. "Two. Three."
Mr. Ratliff came in the door, a line of students trailing him. "I told Mikey he gets five points, sir," said Gabe instantly. "He reported Pete slacking off."
"Five," said Pete. "Six. Seven. Eight."
Mr. Ratliff made a note on his pad. "Good, Mikey. Keep it up."
"Yes, sir," said Mikey, blank-faced.
They waited for Pete to finish his situps, groaning out the last few numbers, and Mr. Ratliff jerked his head for them to get in line. Pete's abs cramped, but he got up and took his place. As they headed for circle, a whistle came in his ear, so faint he might have imagined it. "Off to never-never land..."
The No-Touching Rule
The rule against students touching other students is here for a reason. Some kinds of touches might seem okay, like hugging someone or shaking someone’s hand, but one of the things we’re learning here is how to recognize boundries. We practice self-control here by keeping our hands to ourselves and not moving in on someone else’s personal space. It’s a basic lesson, so if I don’t learn it now, I’ll never succede in life.
It’s especially important for someone like me to avoid touching others. If I can’t control myself by keeping my hands to myself I won’t be able to when I’m tempted to do other things that I shouldn’t do. I make poor decisions, which is one reason I’m here, and if I don’t learn to control myself, the consequnces of my bad decisions will follow me for the rest of my life. They could also affect others, because if I don’t respect boundries I’ll end up forcing myself on someone. There would be tragic consequences bc I didn’t do the right thing. When I’m--
DESERT ROCK ACADEMY
Parents and children are encouraged to correspond with each other as often as each desires. We do suggest that you allow two weeks before attempting to send letters, as this early time is vital to getting your child settled into the program.
Once the initial two-week period is up, your child will likely go through several different tactics in an attempt to manipulate your emotions in order to avoid making the necessary changes in his life. These tactics can include:
Appeal to Guilt (How could you do this to me? or don’t you love me anymore?)
Appeal to Fear (The kids here are criminals or the counselors treat me poorly)
Appeal to Reasonableness (Let me come home and we can work this out or another program would work better for me)
These are natural fear responses to change, as the “old self” is let go and the “new self” emerges. When your child writes you, it is important that you respond with encouragement and positivity. With the support of his family and Desert Rock Academy, your son will be able to leave behind his old, negative behaviors and embrace a new positive attitude.
Dear Mom and Dad,
How are you? I’m the same as last time. I can run for two miles without stopping now. I’m working hard at school,
but I miss art classes and Mr. Hall says I can take the AP exam for history soon.
I know you said it would be good for me to be without Mikey for a while. But I’m worried about him. I don’t get to talk to him at all, and I barely even see him. That’s not an exageration, I tried to turn around in my chair last night to see where he was and Mr. Paul made me get on the floor and do situps for an hour. There’s a lot worse that goes on here, and I’m scared about what they might do to me if I really
piss them off make them mad.
Maybe you’re right, maybe I need to learn to be without Mikey sometimes, but not this way. A normal way, like me going to college and seeing him on vacations or something, where we could call each other and text and
shi stuff. This place isn’t good for us. It’s really not good for him.
I swear, I never meant the picture to be a threat. I wasn’t even thinking about it in a threatening way. I’d never hurt anyone, *never*, you guys know that. If you want me to see someone, I’m totally cool with that, I mean it. I’d go see whoever you wanted. I’d let them record the sessions and play them for you if you wanted. I’m not trying to keep secrets or hide anything.
Please let us come home. I miss you. I miss Mikey.
“You think you’re too good for everyone.”
“You need to change your attitude to gratitude. You’re nothing but a criminal. It’s lucky they sent you here before you really hurt someone.”
“You can’t keep secrets here. You need to talk about things if you’re ever going to let us help you.”
Mikey sat in the middle of the circle, hands folded neatly in his lap. He looked each person in the eye when they spoke, said “Thank you,” and waited for the next assault. Pete, whose last Circle grilling had brought him to tears, waited for Mikey to crack, and he just didn’t.
Pete couldn’t figure out why. He raised his hand for a turn, only to be ignored, so he kept at it over and over, but when Mr. Ratliff called on him, he suddenly couldn’t think of anything to say. “Your brother’s here too, right?”
“Gerard is in Honesty,” said Mr. Ratliff, nodding at Pete to continue. Pete thought fast. “So it runs in the family, right? Is that your excuse? You can’t help it because you’re just following your big brother’s example? Well, that’s crap. You have no one to blame for your mistakes but yourself.”
Mikey’s gaze was like glass, Pete’s words skipping off the surface without making an impression. Pete looked nervously at Mr. Ratliff and tried harder. “Would you follow him no matter what he did? If he killed someone? If he stole a car? If he overdosed, would you do it too? You’re a danger to others and yourself, and you’ll end up dead or in jail if you don’t work the program and be thankful you’ve been given another chance.”
Something in there struck home; Pete didn’t know what, but Mikey’s face flinched minutely. “Thank you,” he said after a minute. Mr. Ratliff called on someone else and Mikey turned away. Pete slumped back in his seat, but Gabe gave him the eyebrow and he sat up straight. He felt an inch tall.
They were lining up after journaling when Mr. Greenbaum tapped Brendon on the shoulder and pulled him out of line. Brendon flinched and looked instinctively at Ryan, but Ryan only glanced at them and looked away.
Brendon didn't need Ryan's pinches and arm twists to remind him about talking, so he didn't ask where they were going, even when Mr. Greenbaum took him out of the classroom and across to the admin building. His heart thudded in his ears and he kept his hands clasped to stop them from shaking. He hadn't done anything wrong, he didn't think he'd done anything wrong, but how could he tell? He looked sidelong at Mr. Greenbaum to gauge whether an apology would help or hurt him.
They walked down the halls, lit by the dim red glow of the exit signs, past Dr. Thorne's office with the gold lettering on the door and around the corner to a door at the end of the hall. Mr. Greenbaum knocked and opened the door. "Here you go. He's in Honesty, so take him back when you're done."
Brendon squared his shoulders and walked in. "Sit down," said Mr. Robinson. Brendon sat.
The office was more like a closet, Brendon's and Mr. Robinson's chairs so close their knees almost touched. Brendon bit his lip. He'd been punished for the hug, he'd been out of Reflection for over two weeks, so why was he here?
Mr. Robinson smiled at him, and Brendon smiled back automatically. "So," said Mr. Robinson. "How have you been doing, little fag?"
Brendon's smile froze. "Uh," he said awkwardly. "Okay. I guess. Sir."
"You're still at Level One, huh?" Mr. Robinson sounded interested, his tone completely at odds with his words. "I guess you don't want to go home very bad." Brendon almost interrupted to tell Mr. Robinson that yes he did, he wanted to go home very bad indeed, but Mr. Robinson kept on, "I'm not really that surprised. Why would you want to go home when you have your pick of the boys here?"
"But I do," said Brendon, voice scratchy. Was this more punishment? Shouldn't he be told what for? "I want to go home, sir. I don't want to pick anyone."
"So why the white shirt?" Mr. Robinson leaned forward, and Brendon leaned back. "Everyone's out of Level One within a couple weeks. Everyone except you. Don't you want to move up?"
Brendon nodded frantically. "Yes, sir, yes I do, I'm trying my best, I'm sorry." He couldn't figure out why he was here, what he was supposed to be learning.
"No, I don't think you are," said Mr. Robinson. He stood up, nudging his chair back. Brendon tightened his hands in his lap. "But if you want to convince me you want it, I'm open to persuasion."
"I'm not--" Brendon had to look down and swallow hard. "I can't, I'm not, like, I never--"
Mr. Robinson overrode him. "I know what you are; I knew that the day you showed up. I'm doing you a favor here. I get what I want, you get what you want, and it's something fags like you enjoy anyway, so what's the problem?"
Brendon shook his head. I'm not one of those people, he would have said if he could find his voice.
Mr. Robinson sighed. "You're making this difficult, little faggot. Don't make this difficult."
Brendon bit down hard on his lip to keep from speaking, because if he said what he wanted, if he screamed and ran and yelled for help, he knew exactly what he'd get. It wouldn't be worth it. He took deep breaths, hunched his shoulders up by his ears, and looked up when he was ready.
Spending lots of time in Circle is relly helping me see where I went wrong. I'm learning from hearing about others' mistakes and also from the feedback they give me. I've been a pretty screwed-up kid for a while I guess. I look at the diffrence between what I am and what I should be, and I don't even know what bridge to burn to get me across that gulf.
I feel like a small potato that's been mashed until it can't be recognized.
I always felt bad for the lobsters we ate until my dad told me that they were giant sea bugs. Maybe they needed the boiling water like I need my mind scrub out. Maybe I'm what's for dinner. Letting everyone take pieces of me, is that the way to make myself whole?
When I can go home, I want to eat everything in the grocery store. I want fried chicken, and pie, and salami and cheese and poptarts. I want steak and french fries and watermellon gum. I'll deserve it, because I will have graduated the program and become what I need to be. I'll eat donuts and ice cream and bacon. Being full is its own reward. Food fuels your body, and when I eat all that, I'll be able to run and never stop. I'll run in a straight line, because a circle brings you around to where you began and I never want to be there again. Take a piece and dive in. Eat what you want, I won't miss it. The more you eat, the more complete I'll be.
Nothing will change until I choose to change. Nothing will change until I choose to change. Nothing will change until I choose to change.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Gerard again, more desperate this time.
They must have found out, even this much later. Brendon must have talked. Gerard couldn’t blame him, not really, but oh God, he couldn’t face what they were going to do. It was so much worse when you knew what was coming. Mr. Dennison didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at Gerard as they walked to the admin building.
Gerard wanted to scream at him. It was a hug, it was just a hug, he didn’t deserve whatever they were going to do, and Brendon sure as he-- heck didn’t deserve what they’d done. He didn’t. No one did. But he couldn’t say anything, it would be so much worse if he said anything.
When they went inside and Mr. Dennison stopped at Dr. Thorne’s door, Gerard’s breath came so fast that his lips buzzed and went cold and he was pretty sure the next step was falling over. His vision darkened, and it didn’t clear until he was seated in front of Dr. Thorne’s desk and the door was closing behind him.
Dr. Thorne was still red-faced, even in the air-conditioned comfort of the building. He mopped at his forehead with a tissue. “Gerard. Hello.”
“Hello, sir,” said Gerard. His fingers pressed into the plastic of the chair seat.
“You’ve been with us for some time, haven’t you? I’m sorry it’s taken so long for us to meet. Usually I try to do it within two or three weeks, but I’ve had to be away for a while. How are you doing?”
Gerard stared at him. “I’m fine, sir.”
Dr. Thorne smiled, and it looked sincere. “I know this stage is hard. Leaving home, relearning everything you knew, it’s not easy for anyone. I’m very happy to see that you’ve been working your program. I’m hearing good reports from Mr. Paul about your behavior.”
Gerard didn’t want good reports of his behavior. He wanted to leave here, Mikey in tow, and run for a year; he wanted to be safe at home; he wanted things to make sense again. He found himself saying “Thank you, sir,” with no hint of anger or rebellion.
Dr. Thorne nodded like it was what he expected. “I’d like to talk to you about your goals, Gerard. What do you think you need to learn while you’re here? What do you need to do?”
“I--” Gerard shifted. “I guess I need to work up the levels, sir.”
“Yes, good,” said Dr. Thorne, leaning forward, “but what does that mean to you?”
Gerard thought fast. “I need to try harder. I get points for doing the hard stuff, like running and pushups and lunges and stuff. I’m trying, but... I could try harder.”
Dr. Thorne nodded. “What else?”
“It means...” Gerard tapped his fingers on his thigh. “I need to do the right stuff. Obey my counselors, keep my hands to myself, stuff like that. And listen when I’m in Circle, and give others good feedback, and--” Dr. Thorne was smiling. “What? I mean, what, sir?”
“That’s all correct,” said Dr. Thorne, “but you’re missing a piece. Can you figure out what it is?”
“Um.” Gerard looked at the floor, up at the ceiling, back at Dr. Thorne. “No, sir. I’m sorry.”
He leaned forward again, and looked utterly sincere. “You have to want it, Gerard. You have to do all these things because you want to get better. Yes, you’ll get to go home, but that’s a side benefit. You’ll be a better person. You’ll have the tools you need for success. You won’t be like the losers that can’t handle life, who use drugs and alcohol to numb them to their own failures. You’ll be able to do what you want, write your own ticket, and you’ll look down at the losers and you’ll laugh.”
Gerard didn’t want to laugh at anyone, but he nodded anyway. “Sir, can I ask a question?”
“Certainly.” Dr. Thorne leaned back and made an expansive gesture.
“Could I be reassigned to my brother’s house, sir? He’s in Cooperation.” Even before he finished speaking, Dr. Thorne was shaking his head, and Gerard dug his fingernails into the chair to keep from shouting.
“I understand how you feel, but I’m afraid it’s not possible. You two need some time apart. You each need to discover who you are, without the burden of expectations. You don’t want to just slide back into your old role, do you?”
“I guess not, sir.” Surprise tears stung his eyes. He hadn’t really hoped; there hadn’t been time to hope, but just the thought of being close to Mikey again made his heart leap up. It would make things so much more bearable if they could be together.
“That’s not to say...” Dr. Thorne steepled his fingers. “Not to say you two couldn’t spend time with each other. If you both work hard and show progress, I think that would be a good idea.”
“Really?” Gerard had to fight down the sudden jolt of longing. “I would. I will. I promise I will.”
“Good,” said Dr. Thorne. “When we see results, you’ll both get your rewards.”
Gerard nodded fervently. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Pete in the shower.
Mikey didn’t say anything. He ran his bar of soap across his narrow chest and lathered it with his other hand, staring at Pete.
“I didn’t mean it,” said Pete. “I was just...” He trailed off and stepped under the rapidly cooling water. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I don’t want to say those things.”
Mikey scrubbed his scalp. Just as Pete thought he might as well give up, Mikey spoke. “I get it.”
“What are you two whispering about?” called Travis from the other end of the shower.
“I was just telling Mikey he better work harder,” Pete called back. “I’m almost at Level Three and he’s barely hanging on to Level Two. We came in at the same time, but I’m way ahead.”
Travis walked over to them, imposing despite-- or because of-- his nakedness. “You work your own program and let Mikey work his,” he said. “You don’t have much to brag about. Thirty sit-ups, right now.”
Pete took the consequences without complaint. He needed to show Mikey he was trustworthy. Pete had something to say, and he had to hope that Mikey would listen. When he finished, Travis shut the water off and sent everyone to bed. Mikey’s bed was across the room from Pete’s, so there was nothing more to be said that night. Pete made his plans.
He had a chance two days later. Mikey sat by him at lunch, which was good, but a fight broke out at the Integrity table, and that was even better. While everyone’s attention was captured, Pete spoke in a low voice. “I’m planning to run. You in?”
“Yes,” said Mikey fiercely, watching the fight. “Hell yes.”
“One condition,” said Mikey when they were weeding the front flowerbeds the next day.
“My brother comes.”
Pete frowned at a stubborn weed. “He’s in another house.”
“I don’t care,” Mikey said. “We make it work, or you’re on your own. Not negotiable.”
“Who says I even need you? I could go on my own.”
Mikey leaned back on his heels. A tiny smile came and went. “You need me.”
Jepha moved closer, so Pete turned his attention to the geranium he was tugging at and crawled to another spot. How would that even work? He could find ways to talk to Mikey and Gabe, but communication with another house was, if not impossible, a lot more dangerous.
Maybe Gabe would know. Gabe seemed to know everything and everyone, and he must be able to do that somehow.
Brendon kept kicking that little rock. It skipped ahead a few inches; he took a step and off it went again. He wasn’t trying, it just happened. Mr. Mayers didn't dig his fingers into Brendon's arm any tighter, so he guessed it was okay. He never knew anymore.
The moon was a bright sliver in the sky. Brendon sniffed and rubbed his nose. His mouth tasted awful. He couldn't wait to brush his teeth. The rock skittered ahead of him. Mr. Mayers shifted his grip. There was a crack somewhere beyond the fence, but Brendon didn't look up.
Kick. Kick. The rock bounced off the front step of the Honesty porch. Mr. Paul was there, waiting for Mr. Mayers to deliver Brendon. "It's late," he said.
Brendon felt Mr. Mayers shrug. "Robinson had a few words to say to him." Brendon stared at his shoes.
"Brendon, get inside," said Mr. Paul. "It's your shower night. Go." Mr. Mayers released him, and Brendon went in without a word.
Lights-out had been a while ago. Everyone on Brendon's side of the house was asleep, so he stripped and folded his clothes neatly, placing them in his locker, his glasses centered on top. The shower was cold, but whatever. He could deal with cold. It made him hurry, gave him less time to look at his stupid body with its skinny legs and knobby knees and stupid-- just stupid everything. If he could, he'd burst out of his body and leave it behind, a cold husk in the dirt, while his mind soared away like a bird made of white light.
When Mr. Paul came to check on Brendon, he was already done, towel firmly around his waist. He kept his eyes somewhere around Mr. Paul's middle, so when Mr. Paul gestured to the bunkroom, Brendon went in, found his clothes, put them on, and went to bed.
"Hey." The whisper was almost soundless. Brendon stared at the bunk above his head.
He turned his head toward Ryan.
"Where've you been?"
Brendon shrugged and stared back up.
"You have to tell me." Ryan's whisper was insistent. "I'm your guide. You have to do what I tell you."
Not when he was talking after lights out, Brendon didn't.
"This is the third time this week. What's going on?"
Ryan just wasn't going to leave him alone. Brendon weighed the consequences of ignoring him versus the consequences of getting caught talking, and decided he didn't care either way. "I had to see a counselor."
"He wanted to talk to me."
Brendon closed his eyes. He was so terribly tired. "It doesn't matter."
"Who was it?"
Brendon cracked one eye open. Ryan was up on one elbow, barely visible in the light that leaked in from the porch. His hair was flattened on one side, sticking up on the other, and his eyes narrowed when he saw Brendon looking back. "Tell me who it was."
It didn't matter. Brendon just wanted to be left alone. "Robinson," he said, and rolled over so he didn't have to see Ryan anymore. There was a pause, then a rustle of covers, and when Brendon peeked back over his shoulder, Ryan was rolled up like a burrito.
He curled up into himself, knees at his forehead and arms wrapped around his shins. He made his mind go blank. It was surprisingly easy.
Sweat ran down Gerard’s neck and his back, and his head itched after his last go-round with the clippers, and it was so hot in the kitchen he couldn’t get a clear breath. The smells of grease, old food, and chemical detergent collided with steam and the body odor of ten sweaty teenage boys. It was the worst station on the neverending round of chores assigned so they could learn to contribute to society. He grabbed the rack of plates Ryland had just collected and sprayed it with the hot water hose. Bits of scrambled egg flew off and stuck on his shirt. It was gross, but he ignored it.
“Get your rear in gear,” muttered Bert, coming behind him with a mop and bucket. He jabbed an elbow into Gerard’s back, which Gerard had grown accustomed to as a friendly gesture. “Drugs are wack so watch your back!”
“Hilarious,” Gerard tossed over his shoulder, and Bert giggled and swung the mop around in a waltz.
“Cut it,” ordered Tom, and Tom had hit Level Five and could dish out consequences, so Bert wiggled his eyebrows and pushed the mop bucket through the doors and into the dining room. Gerard concentrated on spraying down the plates before loading them into the industrial dishwasher. When he looked up, Tom was talking to the kitchen supervisor.
Ryan came up and dumped another tubload of plates into the sink. He stared at Gerard as if challenging him to say something. Gerard had no clue what. “Could you hand me that scouring thing?” he asked.
Ryan hesitated, then tossed it over. “Thanks,” said Gerard, but Ryan’s back was already turned. Gerard turned his head down to scrub at a particularly stubborn bit of dried egg.
Stack. Spray. Wash. Gerard’s hands were wrinkled, his shirt stuck to his back, and if he’d had hair it would have been plastered to his neck. He was thoroughly hot, thoroughly soggy, and thoroughly miserable. So when he looked up and saw Sean’s cheeks bulging as he twisted the tie back onto the Wonder Bread wrapper, Gerard’s frustration shot his hand high in the air. “Sir!”
The supervisor had gone out to the dining room, but Tom came over. “What?”
“Sean.” It wasn’t him, he wasn’t that guy, but he was sticky and gross and everything stank and he needed points because Mikey. “He stole a piece of bread, I saw it.”
“I saw it too,” chimed in Max, who’d been halfway across the room with his back turned.
“Sean’s a thief,” said Nate.
Tom folded his arms, and Sean deflated. “You lose five points,” said Tom, “and I want to see a five-minute wall-sit. Go.” Sean walked to a clear wall space and slid down until his thighs were perpendicular to the floor.
“Five points, Max,” said Tom, “and ten for Gerard for catching it. Good work.”
“Thanks,” muttered Gerard. His whole body was flushed and prickling. It was just the heat. On the wall, Sean’s legs were trembling.
"... so I thought that if I told her I liked her, if I came out and said it, she'd, I mean, in the movies that's what happens, but I said it and it sounded stupid, and she and her friends were all laughing at me." Andy took a deep breath. "So I went home and got drunk."
"But it didn't help," said Alex. "Because using alcohol to escape your problems is a coward's way out."
Andy nodded. "Yeah. I know that now. I wish she hadn't laughed at me. That hurt me."
Bert and William and Ryland and even Ryan nodded their heads.
"Five points, Andy. Thanks for sharing." Tom scribbled it down on a notepad. Now that he was peer captain, Mr. Paul let him supervise rap sessions. He wasn't any easier on them even if he was one of them, though. "Brendon, you haven't shared in a long time. Do you have anything you'd like to talk about?"
Brendon hadn't shared in a long time because Brendon saw what happened to the guys who shared. They got points, yeah, but then everyone knew. And once they knew, they could hurt you with it. "Sharing is supposed to be voluntary."
"It is." Tom looked at him over the top of the notebook. "You don't have to share if you don't want to. Keep your secrets."
"Why do you need to keep secrets, though?" asked Max. "We're your family. We don't keep secrets from you."
"Yeah, we share," said Sean. "You need to share too. It's not fair for you to know all our secrets and not give anything back."
"Don't you love us?" Bert fluttered his eyelashes. "Because we love you. It hurts when you don't talk to us. It's like you don't want to be part of the family."
Something snapped inside Brendon, he didn't know what, but his vision darkened for a minute and when it cleared he heard himself talking rapidly. "--behind the mall, it was his break and we went out through the back and I-- we-- I kissed him, and he kissed me back."
No one said anything for a second. Brendon closed his eyes.
"How did it feel?" asked Ryan.
"Good." Brendon swallowed. "It felt really good."
"Your parents didn't like it?" Gerard's voice was tentative.
"Hah." Brendon's laugh choked him. "No. No, they're very Christian. They said, and the bishop said, so no. Not in a million years."
"So you went against what you and your parents know is right," said Andy, as if he was puzzling it out, "and you deliberately went out to pick up guys?"
Brendon cringed. He should have known. "No," he said, though he knew it wouldn’t help, "no, not like that, I didn't go out looking for that--"
"Cause it sounds to me," Andy overrode him, "like you knew what would hurt them, and then you went out and did it. You felt good, but did you think about how they would feel?"
"Yeah, the gays are all about sex," said Bert. "Sex sex sex. Nothing else matters to them. Sex."
"It wasn't sex," said Brendon without hope, "it wasn't about sex, it wasn't anything like that."
"So you just did it to hurt them?" Sean shook his head. "That's even worse.”
"Look," said Alex reasonably. "You knew it was wrong. So either you did it because you wanted to feel good and didn't care you were hurting your parents, or because it didn't feel good but you wanted to hurt them. So which was it?"
"It wasn't." Brendon felt stinging at the backs of his eyes. He thought he might be sick. "I don't want to hurt my family, I've never wanted that."
"But you just don't care when you do," Alex finished. "Be honest with us, Brendon."
"He's crying," said Nate in a disgusted tone.
"Wimp," muttered Max.
"Okay, that's enough for now," said Tom. "Brendon, you'll get five points, but that's conditional on discussing this in your eval tonight. No avoiding the issue."
Brendon nodded. He couldn't look at anyone. He raised his hand to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but Tom said no and they went on to the next one.
The wires were bent. Pete looked away and down at the ground, raking carefully so the dirt lay in neat lines, very zen. It didn’t calm him, though. The wires were bent.
The fence was old, probably never been fixed or replaced. It rose eight feet high, barbed wire adding another three feet on top. Some of the fence was rusted, the barbed wire a tetanus shot waiting to happen. Pete wasn’t looking at the top though. At the bottom, the fence didn’t meet the ground. The wires were bent.
He raked over to the side, looked around, and kicked at the wires. It chinged and shivered, and he backed away. Too loud, too loud.
Pete moved along the fence, glancing over his shoulder at Mr. Mayers hanging out by the green. He was talking to someone else, looked like Mr. Robinson, so Pete trailed the rake back over to the spot. He pressed his foot against it this time, and that did it; the wires moaned and gave a little, and a little more when Pete pressed harder.
He swallowed suddenly and stepped back. This was dangerous. More than dangerous, this could get him landed in Reflection for the rest of his life. No, bad thing, not for him. He hurried away as fast as he could without being obvious. Mr. Mayers hadn’t seen, so he was okay for now. He just had to stay away.
Yeah. Well. Pete had never been good at staying away from things that were bad for him. He tried, but it was like poking an aching spot in his mouth with his tongue. Gradually, slowly, he worked his way back to the place that was almost a hole. If he bent the wires further, someone would notice it, so he tried one of the wires next to it. It resisted, but bit by bit, it yielded to tension. Holy shit. Holy shit.
The next thing Pete knew, he was on the ground.
His heart crashed in his chest and adrenaline shot to his fingertips. A body was heavy on top of him, crushing out his breath; he opened his mouth to drag in air and call for help when a tongue was thrust in and another mouth on his sealed it shut.
Pete lay still for just a second. The mouth was demanding, and suddenly Pete needed it more than air, so he kissed back, crashing his teeth into the other’s, shoving his own tongue in and pressing his lips tighter and tighter to his. It lasted until the body was ripped away, and Pete scrabbled back with a gasp.
Mr. Mayers and Mr. Robinson stood over him, and in their grip between them was Mikey.
“Think that’s cool?” shouted Mr. Robinson. Mr. Mayers shook him like a dog shaking a rat. “Think you’re gonna impress the chicks with how daring you are? You think you’re gonna be sexy? Let’s see how sexy you feel now!” Mikey hung in his grasp and gulped in air, and glared at Pete like he was going to attack him again.
“Fag!” Pete shouted. His voice shook. He didn’t like the word, and it hurt to say it, but he had to save himself. “Stay off me! Fag!” He stared from one to the other to see if they bought it.
“Get back to work,” ordered Mr. Mayers, and the two counselors dragged Mikey away. Pete was safe; he got up and watched. Everyone stopped work to see them haul Mikey to the green, strip his clothes off, and press him against the flagpole. “Hands!” shouted Mr. Robinson, and Mikey put his hands behind his back, and there was the rip of duct tape and the jerk of Mikey’s shoulders, and when they stepped back he sank against his bonds and didn’t move.
Pete turned his head to the ground and raked, his hands shuddering against the handle. Mikey saw, and his distraction had rescued Pete, maybe rescued them all. Pete had fucked up, and Mikey had fixed it. He’d been right. Pete needed him more than anyone else.
The cool air hit Brendon's skin when they stepped out of the building. He didn't need to be guided; he walked quietly beside Mr. Greenbaum and didn't say a word. He could walk the path back with his eyes closed. He tried it for a couple seconds, but opened them when he tripped and almost faceplanted onto the ground.
Mr. Greenbaum grabbed him to steady him, but didn't speak. Brendon was grateful for that. He'd had enough of talk for the night. They walked on until a coyote sounded in the distance, and a laugh burst out of Brendon, startling them both. He didn’t know why. It wasn't funny. Nothing was funny, but Brendon laughed, pointed at the desert outside the fence and laughed until the tears ran down his face. Mr. Greenbaum looked disconcerted, and settled the matter by grabbing Brendon by the arm and hauling him off toward Honesty. Brendon went without a struggle, still laughing. He didn't know why-- it wasn't like the coyote was inherently funny-- but he couldn't stop and he wasn't sure he cared.
He laughed when Mr. Paul opened the door, and he laughed at everyone's faces as Mr. Paul dragged him through the bunkroom, and he laughed when Mr. Paul slammed him against the wall and turned the cold water on full blast. He stripped off and laughed until he shook, until the cold leached it all out of him and he could breathe again, shallow breaths punctuated by hiccuping giggles.
"A hundred pushups," said Mr. Paul, so Brendon got down on the floor and got started. Over four months in, his arms were starting to show it. He still had to take breaks, and after fifty he had to do them from his knees, arms rubbery, but it used to take him half an hour, and now it only took fifteen minutes. When he was done, he got up, and didn't care that Mr. Paul saw him naked. Mr. Paul scowled and grabbed Brendon by the scruff of the neck, propelling him toward his bunk. Brendon stubbed his toe on the frame, but it just set him off again, and he giggled until Mr. Paul's hand caught him hard across the face, forward and back and forward again.
"Shut up," said Mr. Paul, "shut up and go to sleep. That goes for all of you," he said to the room at large. "I hear anything from any of you, you'll be running laps all night."
Brendon slid into his bunk and smiled up into the mattress overhead. His face throbbed, and he felt washed out and empty. It wasn't funny, nothing in the world was funny, but it was good to laugh.
"Hey." A soundless voice. Brendon sighed inwardly and rolled over. "What?"
Listening to Ryan was more an exercise in reading lips by moonlight than anything else. "Are you okay?"
Brendon nodded. "Swell. Peachy." He looked over at Mr. Paul's door, but it was half-closed, so he probably couldn't hear. Besides, what was he going to do? Make Brendon do pushups? Situps? Run laps? Brendon felt like he could run forever, in this place where everything was calm and nothing hurt.
Ryan looked weird. Brendon made a face. It didn't cheer him up; his face was a perfect blank. "Don't worry about it," whispered Brendon. "It's cool. Cool as ice."
Ryan's lips tightened. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but he shook his head and slid back down under the sheet. Brendon rolled his eyes toward the open window. He could hear faint shouts.
Gerard snuck out of bed early, and was dressed and standing at attention before the alarm bell rang. Bert dropped out of the bunk above him and eyed him for a second before pulling on his own clothes. Gerard stared straight ahead.
Mr. Paul came in, William was still tying his shoes. "Minus five points," said Mr. Paul. William's face fell. "Gerard, do you want to lead the family to formation?"
"Yes, sir," said Gerard, "thank you, sir." For the first time, he was trusted enough to head the line. The plan was working.
He marched out with the rest of the house trailing behind, and he stood facing the sun with shoulders back, chest out, hands flat against his sides. He let his eyes flick to the flagpole. Empty. He didn't dare turn his head to see if Mikey was in his house line.
Alex played reveille, the Level Fives and Sixes raised the flag, and Gerard executed a precise right-face that was only marred a little when he caught his toe on a piece of gravel. Mr. Paul had him lead the house to breakfast, and then to school. He was silent as he did his worksheets. When he heard Max whispering to Sean, he raised his hand and reported it. He got points. They lost them. He didn't care. Right now, he couldn't care.
Gerard chanted the slogans during the afternoon run, even with the sun cracking his lips. He shouted that drugs were for losers, that he was a disappointment to his parents, that nutrition was the key to a long life and obedience was the key to success. He still wheezed his way into the middle of the pack, but at least he wasn't last anymore.
He didn't miss Mr. Paul's look of approval, and at lunch, he dared to raise his hand for permission to speak.
"What is it, Gerard?" asked Mr. Paul.
"Sir, could I-- uh, may I talk to you for a second?"
"You're talking now. What do you want?"
Gerard steeled himself. "May I talk to my brother, sir?" He held his breath.
Mr. Paul sat back. "That's what this turnaround is about? I’m disappointed, Gerard. I thought you were finally coming around."
"I am, sir, I really am," said Gerard hastily. "I just, I want to tell him he needs to stop. He needs to follow the rules. I don't want him--" he swallowed-- "I don't want to see him on the flagpole again. If I tell him, he'll listen. I promise, sir."
Down the table, Bert snickered. Mr. Paul frowned at him, but turned back to Gerard. "I'll tell you what. We'll make a deal. You earn your way to Level Three before bedtime, and you can have five minutes with him."
It was a better chance than Gerard expected. "Thank you, sir! I'll do my best, thank you." He could see Sean rolling his eyes. Fuck him. Gerard hadn't spoken to Mikey in almost five months.
Gerard stayed alert during school, paying only enough attention to his worksheet to make himself look studious. It wasn't like screwing it up would affect his grade; they'd just give it to him to do again until he got it right. What he really needed was for someone to talk, or pocket their crayon, or break any rule he could remember so he could turn them in. Thirty points to make. It was impossible, but he was going to do it anyway. He'd be at Level Three, but the green shirt didn't matter nearly as much as Mikey.
Fate or his housemates conspired against him. They might have been behaving just to spite him, he didn't know. He did manage to get a few points during afternoon calisthenics by putting his all into the squat-thrusts, yelling that cigarettes took ten years off your life and that Vitamin D was good for him. He earned more when Ryan snapped and mouthed off to Mr. Robinson, and Gerard helped restrain him for the counselor to take Ryan to Reflection. By the time Circle came around, Gerard had twenty points to go.
Adam was first up. Gerard thrust his hand into the air over and over, waving it wildly for a chance to speak, but Mr. Paul didn't call on him for Adam, or for Ryland, and by the time Brendon went into the middle of the Circle, Gerard was losing hope. "I'm a disappointment to my parents," said Brendon without prompting. "I stole money and did drugs. I drank, and I smoked, and I kissed guys. I deserve to be here. My parents did me a favor."
Mr. Paul called on Tom, who snarled that Brendon didn't appreciate what his parents had done for him, then Nate, who told Brendon he should have been thinking of them instead of himself, then-- "Gerard, do you have anything to say?" asked Mr. Paul.
This was his chance. Gerard took a deep breath. "You did more than kiss guys, didn't you?"
Brendon flinched and shook his head.
"Don't lie," snapped Gerard. "What did you do? Did you let them put their hands down your pants? Did you get down on your knees and suck them off? Did you let them come on your face?"
"Not appropriate, Gerard," said Mr. Paul, but he looked at Brendon for the answer. They all did. Brendon shook his head again, eyes fixed on Gerard. "I didn't," he said softly. "We just kissed. That's all."
"That's crap, and you know it's crap," Gerard said vehemently. He needed these points, he had to have these points. "You’re such a whore. You know every time you did that, you stabbed a knife into your mother's heart, right? Every time you knelt down in front of a guy, you stomped on everything your parents gave you. You don't deserve them. You don't deserve to be here, you're lucky they cared about you enough to send you here. You're lucky we're willing to look at you and tell you what you need to hear so you'll become the son they deserve. You are nothing without the program. Nothing."
His heart was pounding in his ears, and his vision was hazed with red, but he still saw Brendon's eyes go dark, and heard him say "Thank you."
He got ten points, the most he'd ever seen anyone get in Circle. He wanted to fall down on his knees and thank Mr. Paul, but it wasn't appropriate and he'd get docked. Just ten more, just ten more.
He earned five when he managed to stay at the front of the pack during laps; he had to dig deeper than he ever had, and mouth the slogans rather than shout, but it paid off. Seeing more than half the house trail in after him was a hell of a rush, and with only five points to go...
It was the essay that did it. Evening journaling had been a chore before, every word wrung out of his crayon an effort, but tonight it flew. I see what I was doing wrong before. I thought I could get through the program without changing my attitude, but that was a mistake. I have to change my attitude if I ever want to succeed in life. The better I do here, the better I'll do back at home. If I get another chance I won't let it go to waste.
Gerard held his breath as Mr. Paul scanned his essay, then went back and read through it again. And again. He looked up. "You’re faking this."
"No, sir!" He'd said what they wanted, and he’d meant it. "I see what I did wrong before, and I want to make it right. I want to help Mikey make it right."
Mr. Paul took out his ever-present notepad and wrote something down. He tore the page off and handed it to Gerard. "Congratulations on reaching Level Three. A counselor will take you to pick up your shirt after Journaling."
"I-- thank you, sir.” Inside, Gerard cheered. Now for the payoff. “Uh, earlier, you said..."
Mr. Paul waited. "Well?"
Mr. Paul didn't have to stick to the deal. Gerard was already getting a green shirt; he shouldn't ask for favors too. "You said I could talk to Mikey? You said I could have five minutes, sir, if I got all my--"
"I know what I said," Mr. Paul said. "Are you pushing me, Gerard?"
"No, sir!" Gerard took a step back. "No, absolutely not, I, thank you for the green shirt, sir, thank you, I appreciate this--" Mr. Paul was waving a counselor over, and when he got there pointed to Gerard. "He's at Level Three, and he gets five minutes with Mikey Way from Cooperation. Take him to the green; I'll get someone to bring Mikey over in a minute."
The counselor was Mr. Hall from Gerard's first day, and Gerard walked beside him obediently. "Looks like you've been doing well for yourself," Mr. Hall commented when they walked outside.
"Thank you, sir," said Gerard. "I'm trying."
The sun had gone down, and the only illumination was the spotlight on the flag and the sputtering porch light of Courtesy. The sand never held on to the heat, so even though the breeze was slight, it still made Gerard shiver. He stood straight and tried to hold still. At the sound of feet on the gravel path, he stood even straighter, taller, trying to show that he was good, he was trying, he deserved this reward for all he was doing.
"Five minutes," said Mr. Hall. He didn't leave. Of course he wasn't going to leave. Gerard let out his breath and took his first good look at Mikey in months.
Mikey had lost weight. So had Gerard, but at least he had weight to lose. Mikey's cheeks were hollowed, and nubs of bone jutted out from his wrists. "God. Mikey," said Gerard softly. "You look-- you have to eat, man. Are you okay?"
Mikey stared at a point past Gerard. "Yeah." He sounded as level as ever, but Gerard could hear the cracks in his voice. He could see the way Mikey held his shoulders.
"I saw you last week," Gerard said. He rubbed his forehead. "I don't know what it was for, it doesn't matter. Dude. I know how it is, okay? I know it sucks. But you have to follow the rules, Mikes. We can't get out of here without following the rules."
Mikey's mouth thinned into a line. He nodded stiffly. Gerard had never hated the no-touching rule more than he did right now. He held his hands behind his back so he wouldn't be tempted. "I'm sorry. I'm so freaking sorry. This is my fault. I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," said Mikey. Gerard could barely hear him. "I wanted to come."
Gerard knew better. He nodded anyway. "I'm working really hard," he said. "I just made Level Three. Only three more to go. How much longer do you have?"
Mikey shrugged. "Fifty more points," he said to the ground. Gerard clenched his hands together behind his back. "Okay," he said quietly, "okay, it's not that much. It's not that long. We can do it, okay? Just keep at it. If we both work hard, maybe they'll let us talk more often. If we do good."
Mikey stayed silent. It was his hurt silence, like when Mikey'd broken his arm and Mom had rushed them to the hospital, Gerard wailing, Mikey white and tight-lipped beside him. A breeze kicked up; Mikey rubbed his eyes, and Gerard heard a quiet sniff and felt like he'd been knocked off the edge of the world.
"Please don't cry," he said. His throat was getting thick. "I'm sorry. Please don't cry. We'll get out soon."
Mikey nodded. "Time's up," said Mr. Hall. "Come on, you need your new shirt, and you need to get to bed."
"Thank you, sir," said Gerard automatically. He cleared his throat. "Night, Mikes. See you soon."
"Yeah," said Mikey, and his counselor led him away.
If Mikey insisted on including Gerard, well. Pete was going to have to find a way. He thought it over for a couple weeks, talked briefly with Gabe when he could manage it, and came to a decision.
He caught Ryan’s eye when he had gone through the breakfast line, and mouthed “Bathroom.”
Ryan frowned and shook his head.
“Bathroom.” Pete nodded. “Ten minutes.”
He watched Ryan sit down, watched him eat and drink, and almost exactly ten minutes later, raise his hand for his counselor. Excused, he left the room and didn’t look back at Pete.
Pete waited two minutes, then raised his own hand. “May I be excused, sir?”
Mr. Ratliff nodded without even looking at him, and Pete made his escape. He forced himself to walk at a normal pace to the bathroom, even though he wanted to run. Only one stall was closed. Pete took the one next to it and scratched on the partition.
“Yeah?” Ryan’s voice was soft and hoarse. Pete matched it. “Gabe said to talk to you.”
There was a pause. “Okay,” said Ryan.
Pete took a deep breath and tried not to panic. “We’re going. Me and Mikey Way. His brother Gerard is in your house.”
“Gerard’s a dickbag,” said Ryan.
“Okay,” Pete said. “I don’t know him. But Mikey needs him, and I need Mikey. So I need you.”
“No way. Gerard’ll tell as soon as he hears.”
“Then don’t tell him.” Pete had thought it through. “Just grab him when we go.”
“How’ll I know when that is?”
“We’ll figure that out later. Are you in?”
There was another pause. Just as Pete was about to give up and get out of there, Ryan spoke so softly Pete had to strain to hear. “If we take Brendon. Then yeah.”
“Who?” Fuck, at this rate they’d be taking half the camp.
“Brendon. I’m his guide. They won’t let him out of Level One because he won’t play the game, he’s too nice.” Ryan’s voice was fierce. “He’s a true believer. He thinks he deserves to be here, and they’re going to destroy him. If he doesn’t go, no one from Honesty goes.”
“I.” Pete shook his head and almost laughed. He flushed the toilet, in case anyone was coming, and opened the door. “Okay.” He didn’t know how this could possibly work. But he’d think of something.
Mr. Dennison came to Circle to get Brendon, and he was grateful to go. It wasn't his turn in the middle, but it was hard to raise his hand and wave and beg for permission to yell at some other poor guy who had the bad luck to be stuck there. Brendon didn't even care where he was taking him.
As they went past Dr. Thorne's office the stomach acid kicked in, but they turned left instead of right and went down the hall to a room Brendon had never been to, with a table, two chairs, and a phone. The phone's light was blinking.
"You don’t deserve this. Level Ones don’t get phone privileges,” said Mr. Dennison. “Sit down.” He took the other chair, picked up the receiver, and handed it to Brendon. Brendon took it like it might bite him. "Hello?"
Brendon blinked. "Dad? Uh. Hi."
"I'm here too," said Mom. "How are you, sweetheart?"
"Um. I'm okay, I guess." Brendon looked at Mr. Dennison. "How's everything up there?"
"Mark and Terri had their baby last month," said Mom. "And Noah lost his first tooth."
"Great," said Brendon. Maybe he was supposed to be excited or something. He didn't know.
"How's it going down there?" asked Dad. "What have you been doing?"
"Oh. I dunno. Stuff." He shrugged, even though they couldn't see him. "I can do fifty pushups without stopping."
"Good for you, honey," said Mom, and the disconnect between her words and his reality was so strong that he'd have had to sit down if he wasn't already there.
"They told us you're still on Level One," said Dad. Brendon didn't have to be there to know that disappointed look was on his face. "I hope you're still working at it. We want you back home with us."
"I'm trying." He had been trying, anyway. "I don't know what's wrong. I do my best." Maybe he was floating away; that would explain the distance that seemed to be growing with every word.
"I hope so, Brendon. It would be great if you could be home for Christmas. Bill and Lisa are going to be in town for a few days before they go back to Japan, and I know they'd want to see you. Lisa always loves hearing you play piano."
"Yeah. That would be nice."
"How's school coming along?"
"Are you making many new friends?" That was Mom. She lived in hope.
"Yeah. It's great."
"Oh good!" She sounded so happy. "This must have been what God had in mind for you. None of them are church members, are they?"
"I don't know, Mom. We haven't talked about it."
"Well, try and find out, all right?"
"Okay." Mr. Dennison was tapping his watch. "Mom, I gotta go."
"Okay, honey. We'll call again when your school says we can."
"We're glad you're making new friends," said Dad, "but be sure and pay attention to the reasons you're there, okay?"
"Okay. We love you, son."
"I love you too," said Brendon, and he hung up the phone. Huh. He hadn't known feeling nothing would feel so good.
I’ve been working hard to earn my levels. Mr. Ratliff let me talk to Mikey this morning for a little bit, and it made me determined to keep at it. Paralize resistence with persistence!
I earned points today by keeping Aaron accountable in Circle. He didn’t want to admit his responsability for being sent here. He didn’t get it that we’re each responsable for our own behavior, and it’s our actions that put us here. I opened myself up and told him about what I’d done, and why I need to be here, and I think he got it after that. Mr. Paul said I should be proud of myself for confronting him and showing him a good example, and I am.
I didn’t lose any points today, and I’m proud of myself for that too. I’m a quarter of the way to Level Four. I’m going to try to be the
first second person to graduate in less than a year. (Mikey will be first.)
It took a month for the three of them to be put together again, but one day there was a shortage of counselors to watch the classrooms, so Cooperation, Perseverance, and Honesty were sent out together for extra laps. Pete and Mikey started out together, but Gerard bulled his way toward them and swept Mikey with him to the front of the pack. Pete let his steps flag until Ryan caught up. They jogged a cautious distance between one pack and the next.
“We need to be able to communicate,” said Pete. “Paper. And pens. Or something.”
“Yeah. Crayons.” Ryan dropped further back, then caught up. “Stay ahead of Brendon. I don’t want him to hear.”
“I thought you could trust him,” said Pete.
“I can. I do. But I don’t want him to know. I don’t want him to be disappointed if it doesn’t work out, and I don’t want him blamed.”
“It’s going to work out,” Pete said confidently.
No one spoke, not until one of the Mikes came up on them, and the two of them busted out with “Exercise keeps you healthy! Commit to be fit!” They chanted until Mike passed, and after, until they were far enough between packs not to be heard.
“We need time alone. Any ideas?” said Pete.
Ryan had this. “We get points. The higher you get, the more leeway they give you. You have to show them you believe in the program and want to complete it.”
“I thought you said Brendon already did, and they just shit on him.” Pete caught a cloud of dust and coughed.
“That’s different.” Ryan’s face hardened. “Someone has it in for him. But I can’t think of anything else. Do you think notes will be enough?”
“They’ll have to be. There’s not another option. Alcohol will make you fall!”
“No excuse for drug abuse!”
“Crack is wack!”
Everyone in line stiffened. Whatever whispers there were abruptly silenced.
"We're missing one," said Mr. Hall. He held the jumbo-sized box of crayons in his jumbo-sized hand. "No one's leaving until every crayon's accounted for. Turn it in now, and you'll just lose points. If I have to come find it, you're going to Reflection until I think you've learned your lesson."
No one moved. No one raised their hand to tell, which meant no one had seen Brendon palm his crayon and slide it into his mouth. He shifted his eyes from side to side like everyone else. Trying to look innocent would just mark him as guilty.
"Fine." Mr. Hall stood up and thumbed his walkie-talkie on. "I'm gonna need some help running searches in Classroom A; who's available?"
Three counselors came into the classroom and started grabbing guys for searches one after the other. "Tickles," yelled Bert gleefully, while Gerard frowned at the floor when he stretched his arms out and spread his legs. Ryan looked bored as ever as Mr. Dennison ran his fingers through his hair. Brendon kept his eyes turned low and let himself be spun around and felt up, and it wasn't until he was facing Mr. Hall and Mr. Hall said "Open your mouth" that he realized he wasn't going to get away with it.
He tried anyway. He shoved the crayon into his cheek with his tongue and opened his mouth as little as he dared. He stuck out his tongue to make it look better. "Wider," said Mr. Hall, and when Brendon didn't, he forced his fingers into Brendon's mouth and opened his jaws.
Brendon endured the yelling and the docking of points-- not that it mattered, he’d given up on getting out of Level One a long time ago-- and the discreet elbow Mike threw into his ribs as Mr. Hall marched Brendon out the door. Well, he had tried. Ryan was just going to have to be disappointed.
"I don't get it," said Mr. Hall on their way to Reflection. "You've been behaving since you got here, now you're stealing crayons? That's not going to get you graduated any quicker."
At this point, Brendon was pretty sure nothing he did would make him graduate any quicker. He didn't answer. Mr. Hall stopped him in front of a Reflection room door and unlocked it. "You know the drill."
Brendon had only been sent to Reflection once before, but it wasn't like it was something you forgot. He laid himself flat on the floor, hands by his sides and forehead pressed against the concrete. Mr. Hall shut the door, and Brendon heard the bolt slide home.
For once, Brendon didn't mind being there. He was so tired of it all. It was a relief to lie still with no one yelling at him about how stupid he was, what a loser, what a screwup, what a disappointment. It felt good to let himself cry without anyone around to make fun of him. He'd ache after a few hours, he knew, and by the time they let him out he'd have a hard time walking, but eff it. Fuck it.
"I didn't hate her," said Gerard. "I don't. But I was angry with her."
"So you threatened to kill her," said Ryan.
"I didn't--" Gerard started automatically. Then he took a deep breath. "Yeah. I drew a picture of demons torturing her. Cutting her up."
"I thought you said it wasn't her," Brendon said.
Gerard wasn't sure what he remembered anymore. "I lied."
"Were you going to do it?" asked Tom.
"I-- no. I didn't like her, but no."
"Maybe you were," Max put in. "You just said now that you lied. Why should we believe you?"
Gerard closed his eyes. He didn't even know whether he believed him. "I don't want to be someone who does that. I want to be trusted."
"To be trusted, you have to be trustworthy," William said.
"Are you?" asked Tom.
Gerard breathed out, and slowly shook his head. "No. I'm not. Not yet."
"Then it's a good thing you're safe here." Bert looked uncharacteristically solemn. "You don't belong out there with real people. We keep them safe from you, and you safe from hurting them."
"I'm sorry," said Gerard. His voice cracked. "I'm sorry, I don't want to be like that, and I don't know what to do. I thought I was okay, I thought I understood things, but now I know I don't, and it's like I have these huge holes in my psyche. How come I don't get it? How can it be so--" he waved his hands around-- "so obvious to everyone else, and I just don't understand?"
"What don't you understand, Gerard?" Tom asked.
"Just-- things! Everything!" Gerard's voice was getting faster, higher, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to finish without breaking down. "I don't understand what it takes to be a person. I thought I was. I thought people just didn't understand who I was, and now it's like everyone understood me except me. I didn't see that I was dangerous. I didn't see the way the world is supposed to work. Now, like... how can I ever go back home again? I still won't see how I should be, I still won't understand the things I need to do. It doesn't make sense in my head, but the things that do make sense are me lying to myself, so I can't trust them. If I can't trust me, how can anyone else? When will I be someone who just knows the right things to do and the right way to be?" He gave up on trying not to cry. There was no shame in it. They were his friends here, they were his family. They told him when he was wrong. He trusted them.
"You've made a good start, Gerard," Mr. Paul said. "You admit that you don't know what you're doing. You admit that those who care about you know what's best, and can help guide you."
"Yeah," gasped Gerard.
"How do we feel about Gerard?" asked Tom.
"We love you, Gerard," they all said.
“What?” Pete asked.
Gabe sat back on his heels and polished Dr. Thorne’s hubcap till it gleamed. “Venezuela. That’s the worst one. I spent eight months at Playa Serenidad; it’s where they send the screwups who can’t make it in one of the American schools.”
“No way,” said Quinn. “Two Rivers, in Guam? That’s the worst. They’re allowed to beat kids with sticks. A guy I knew at Lake Forest had been there, and he said Lake Forest was like paradise. He didn’t have a bed in Guam, just a board with a sheet over it.”
Jepha wiped down the shiny black hood of the Mercedes. “Hey, you didn’t know Jon, he was here before you, but he went to Lake Forest.”
Pete spread wax on the bumper, then wiped it off in small circles. “Why did you have to go to Venezuela?”
Gabe looked at him sharply. “Because I was a screwup. I couldn’t handle the program at Narroway Ranch, so they sent me to the Playa to get my head on straight. I’m glad they did. I’d never be on Level Five now without the Playa making me get my act together.” He stared into Pete’s eyes. Pete got the message and turned back to waxing.
"Up!" Mr. Paul sounded angrier than usual. "Get your lazy butts out of bed! Up!"
Brendon leaped to his feet before his mind caught up, and he grabbed his jeans from under his pillow and hopped in as fast as he could. Around him everyone was blinking, vacant-eyed, as they yanked their clothes on. It was dark out still, hard dark with not a hint of oncoming daylight. Brendon stood at attention by his bed, stomach in knots. If there was punishment coming, he had no idea what for.
"Get those laces out of your shoes. Give them to me. Tom, go do the other side."
Tom raced out of the bunkroom and across the tiny hall. Brendon blinked sleepily, but Mr. Paul took a threatening step forward and he ducked and yanked at his laces, pulling them out of the eyelets so quick the little plastic ends whipped around and stung him. He straightened up and handed them to Mr. Paul, who went around the room grabbing them from everyone.
"Line up," ordered Mr. Paul. Brendon slid into his place in front of Ryan, who put his hand on Brendon's shoulder and squeezed briefly. They marched out, joining other lines from other houses, trudging to the green to form up even though reveille hadn't been sounded.
"All present and accounted for, sir!"
"All present and accounted for, sir!"
"One missing but accounted for, sir!"
"Two missing but accounted for, sir!"
"All present and accounted for, sir!"
It could be anything. Guys missing from their lines didn’t mean much; it was a rare day that every house had all members present. Someone was always running laps or in Reflection. Brendon stood still and waited for the inevitable shouted lecture from one of the counselors, but there was nothing.
He flicked his eyes to either side. No one had shoelaces. He didn't turn his head to look down the line, but he knew he wouldn't see them on anyone. They stood straight and silent for so long that Brendon's eyes started to close again. Someone sagged, and the counselors converged to scream at him. Brendon took the opportunity to rub the blurriness from his eyes, and though Tom cut a sharp look at him, Brendon had straightened up before he could say anything.
Only after the sun was fully over the horizon did the counselors release them to breakfast. There was no explanation, and no one asked.
"Andy from Integrity."
"No, he went to Reflection yesterday."
"Matt from Responsibility."
"Chris from Respect."
"Alex from Sincerity."
Brendon ate his cornflakes.
"It's Zachary from Accountability," said Ryan quietly. "I'm pretty sure."
"How come?" asked William behind his napkin.
Ryan shrugged and looked down. "He looked messed up last time we had Circle together. He doesn't usually get in trouble, but he was here yesterday and now he's not."
Brendon pretended to sneeze. "What happened?" he said between sniffs.
"Suicide. Duh." William pushed his bowl away, frowning. "Why else would they take our laces? He better hope he’s dead. They get mad when you try to off yourself."
Brendon looked into his own bowl. He hadn't let himself think it. It was an unforgivable sin, if only because you couldn't ask forgiveness once it was accomplished. It wasn't to be considered, no matter how seductive it felt, to end the whole mess and be free of the shouting and the orders and the guilt that never left. He only had to look at William and his pathetic attempts to regain trust after his hunger strike to see what a mistake that could be.
"I wish I'd thought of it before," he said.
Gerard's hand shot up. "Mr. Paul! Brendon's talking without permission."
Mr. Paul barely stopped eating. "Minus ten, Brendon, and minus five, Ryan."
“The thing about Gerard,” said Mikey quietly, “is that he tries hard. Really--” he swallowed and continued softer-- “really fucking hard.”
Pete swished his mop through the puddle of water. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. When something’s important, he’ll kill himself doing it, if people let him. This one time, my mom had to bring his food downstairs and stand there and watch him eat it, because he was working on a project for school and kept forgetting to eat. Or sleep. Or shower.”
Pete grinned down at the floor. “Shut up,” said Mikey, smiling himself. “I shower.”
“Only because they make you,” said Pete.
“I never should have told you that.” Mikey elbowed him. Gabe cleared his throat, and Mikey moved away. “The point, though,” he said. “The point is.”
“He tries hard,” Pete says.
“Yeah.” Mikey looked down. “He knows how important it is to leave here. So he’s trying. He’s doing whatever they say to get him and me out. It’s just, he wouldn’t be like that if we weren’t here. He’s not like that.”
“That’s not what I heard from Ryan,” said Gabe.
Mikey whipped his head around. “Ryan can go to-- Ryan can suck it. I know my brother.”
“I’m just saying.”
“I’m just saying you better shut up and quit talking about shit you don’t understand,” Mikey said. His hands tightened on his mop, and for a second Pete thought it was all about to blow up. He stepped in front of Mikey, but Gabe set his mop aside and spoke before Pete could. “Swearing. Fifty pushups. Go.”
Mikey dropped to the floor immediately and counted them out. Pete stepped back and eyed Gabe, who looked back at him coldly. “Got something to say?”
Pete shook his head. He tried to stay calm in the face of all the plans falling apart, the sudden lurch of his stomach at the loss of his ally, the terror of what they were going to do to him and Mikey now that Gabe had turned on them. Gabe saw it. “Hey. Stop it. It’s okay. It’s just.” He tapped his fingers against his leg, uncertain. “He can’t talk to me like that. Understand? He just can’t.”
Mikey finished as Pete was nodding. “You get it, right?” said Gabe to Mikey.
“Yeah,” said Mikey. “Won’t happen again. Sorry.”
“Okay.” Gabe’s face cleared. “Get going, we’re only halfway down the hall.”
They all hunched over their mops and got back to work.
“Thanks,” mumbled Mikey.
Pete frowned. “For what?” he muttered back.
“For believing me. Believing in him. I know it’s hard, but I swear.” Mikey wiped his forehead, his eyes. “I swear.”
“I believe you,” said Pete. Though all he knew of Gerard was the asshole whose house sometimes had Circle with them, and who said shit that was mean enough to make even Quinn cry, if Mikey said he was okay then he was. “I bet he’ll be the first one out of here.”
Mikey lifted his head, and his smile was full and brilliant. “Thanks,” he whispered.
Running was actually easier without shoes. Or at least, without laceless shoes. Brendon pulled his out of the pile they’d made when laps started, and slid his feet in. The bits of rock and broken pieces of sagebrush had hurt at first, but over the weeks, everyone’s feet had toughened and made it easier. Brendon was back up to the speed he’d been, and actually overtook Andy and Ryland some days. He should add that into his self-evaluation that night. He needed something good to say.
They marched in line to class, Ryan’s hand ever-present on his shoulder. Some days Brendon closed his eyes and pretended Ryan was touching him because he wanted to. Some days, like today, Brendon wanted to shrug it off irritably and tell Ryan to go away. He didn’t. He never would. Among all the crap-- the shit wrong with his life, this was pretty minor.
Brendon had had to get used to a lot of shit in the last six months. Sitting quiet and still in class was one of the hardest. He had to focus hard on not twitching, and that meant there was less of his brain to give to his schoolwork, so he’d fallen seriously behind. He was pretty sure he was working backwards, actually, losing everything he’d learned in junior high and possibly back to elementary.
Brendon frowned at the paper. What outlook does the narrator in the previous section have on life? He dug his crayon in so hard the tip snapped off. Shit. He was going to raise his hand for a new crayon, but changed his mind and started writing with the side edge.
After class came journaling, then rap session. Brendon didn’t confront anyone and lost the usual number of points. Dinner formation followed, then dinner, and although Brendon wasn’t supposed to speak or touch anyone, he managed to bump his hip against Ryan’s when they sat down.
Ryan looked at him inquiringly. Brendon reached out and knocked Ryan’s napkin off his tray. “Sorry,” he said.
“Minus five,” said Tom before Gerard could get his hand up. Brendon ducked under the table and handed Ryan’s napkin back. Ryan’s eyes widened briefly before he said “Thank you,” and spread his napkin on his lap.
“How?” murmured Ryan when everyone’s attention turned elsewhere.
Brendon shrugged. He wasn’t a total waste, no matter what everyone else thought.
Ryan slid the tiny piece of crayon in his pocket.
bden says no c’lors in mid of nite said the note, crumpled around the crayon fragment. all nite on pole, no1 there. tell me when.
“It has to be soon,” said Gabe under cover of running water. “My birthday is next week.”
Mikey scrubbed dirt off his foot. “There’s not much we can do in advance. I’ll get Ryan when we go, and he’ll get Brendon, and I’ll get Gerard, and we make for the fence. Then we scatter once we get through.”
“Nuh-uh,” said Pete. “Gabe’s cousin’s going to be waiting. He’ll pick us up, but if we scatter some of us are bound to get caught. Don’t fuck Ryan over like that.”
“I’m not planning to fuck anyone over. But if we all run for the same place, they could catch us all. If we scatter, someone has a chance of making it.”
“You’re all making it,” said Gabe firmly. “Salvador and I will be there.”
Mikey pressed his lips together, but all he said was, “Yeah. Okay.”
“You will,” Gabe said.
“I said okay.”
“Don’t be arguing. I thought you two were best buddies.” Pete tipped his head back and let the water run over his face.
“Yeah,” Mikey said. “Gabe liked it when I kicked his ass.”
Gabe shrugged and washed under his arms. “Anyone new who fights like that, that’s someone I want on my side.”
Brendon scowled angrily at the ground and crumpled the paper X in his hand. Ryan gave him a gentle shove and he stepped into the middle of the circle. Because yes, of course this was what he needed, to get his ass kicked into the dirt in front of everyone, as if he wasn’t already pathetic enough. He could hear Bert laughing already.
And then Gerard stepped into the circle, and everyone lost it. Even Mr. Paul was laughing, and Mr. Dennison threw up his cash into the air. "Who do you bet on here?" he asked everyone in general.
Even odds were decided. Bert pushed Gerard hard, and he stumbled further into the circle. Mr. Dennison gave them the standard warnings-- no faking, no throwing, Reflection, blah blah-- then shouted "Go!"
He had two brothers. None of them fought all that much, but as the youngest, Brendon had learned he had to come out swinging to make an impact. His first punch hit Gerard in the jaw and made him stagger back, so Brendon lunged to follow up with a shot to the temple. Gerard cried out. Brendon fell back, breath coming in quick, cloudy gasps.
If he thought Gerard was going to bitch out again, he was disappointed. Gerard came forward clumsily and socked Brendon in the shoulder. Brendon almost laughed. "Is that the best you can do?" he shouted in Gerard’s face. “Huh?” He hit him in the mouth, bruising his knuckles on Gerard's teeth.
"I'm not-- Jesus, Brendon--" Gerard’s mouth was bleeding and he had trouble getting the words out.
"Rear in gear, Gerard!"
Gerard stiffened, eyes widening, when he heard Mr. Paul's voice over the cheers. He lunged at Brendon and managed to tackle him to the ground. Gerard was taller, Gerard was heavier, and for a second Brendon thought it might be over, but Gerard didn't press his advantage beyond pinning Brendon's shoulders to the ground. And you know what? Fuck that.
Brendon slammed his knee into Gerard's crotch. Gerard choked and fell over, and the guys in the circle let out a sympathetic groan. Brendon got up, breathing heavily, and kicked Gerard in the ribs.
"We gonna call it?" Brendon heard through his battle haze.
"Not over yet," said Mr. Dennison.
Okay, fine. Brendon took a step over to where Gerard was uncurling. Gerard looked up at him, and for a second Brendon actually felt sorry for him. But there was the flagpole, and the point-scoring, and the endless Circle sessions that left Brendon feeling beaten from the inside out. Gerard deserved exactly as much mercy as Brendon got. He grabbed Gerard's hair and bashed him in the face once, twice, again, until Gerard's nose and mouth gushed blood and his eyes rolled back into his head. Brendon let his hair go. Gerard crumpled to the ground and didn't move. Brendon spit on him and stepped back.
"That's enough," bellowed Mr. Robinson. The sound of his voice made Brendon want to run back and stomp Gerard till his eyeballs squished out of his head. Only Ryan's hand yanking his shoulder back kept him in the real world. He spit on Gerard again. Gerard didn't move.
Brendon got extra time in the shower that night, with no one watching him. He stood in the stinging hot water and let the spray dig into his head and shoulders. After the rush of the fight, he was weary to his bones. He whistled softly between his teeth. Still, when you think of the road we're traveling on, I wonder what's gone wrong...
He dried off and walked back to his bed, towel around his waist. He didn't even try to look into Gerard's side of the house. And I dreamed I was dying, I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly and looking back down at me smiled reassuringly...
Ryan lay in bed. His eyes tracked Brendon, but his face was expressionless. Brendon heaved a deep breath, put on his underwear and other t-shirt, and fell onto his bed. And I dreamed I was flying.
When reveille sounded, everyone’s feet hit the floor and for a minute there was nothing other than a flurry of shirts, jeans, and floppy sneakers. Pete’s eyes were gritty from lack of sleep, and his body ached when he snapped to attention. He darted a look at Mikey. Mikey stood straight and silent, but his lips were white and as Pete watched, he swayed infinitesimally. Pete wanted to throw up.
“Line up!” Travis called, and they did, Pete’s back prickling, conscious of the empty slot behind it. Travis frowned. “Gabe, minus ten. Get your butt in line.”
Gabe was sitting on his bed, fully dressed, elbows on his knees and hands clasped. “No.”
Absolute silence fell. Travis’s voice broke it. “Line up, Gabe.”
“No.” Pete watched out of his peripheral vision. Gabe crossed his arms tight over his chest. “I’m eighteen. I’m leaving.”
This was more than Travis was prepared to handle. “Mr. Ratliff!” he called, never taking his eyes off Gabe. “Sir, situation here.”
It took a second before Mr. Ratliff appeared. One glance was all he needed. “Reflection,” he snapped. “I’m disappointed in you, Gabriel.”
“I don’t care.” Gabe’s voice was level, but Pete could hear the slight tremor. “I’m eighteen today. I want to leave. You owe me a ride back to town, and I want my old clothes back.”
“You’re quitting?” Mr. Ratliff looked thunderstruck. “Gabe, you’ve been doing so well. You’re Level Five, for God’s sake. You’re going to throw away all your progress? You know what will happen if you leave.”
“Yeah. I’ll be gone.” Gabe set his jaw.
“Your life will be gone,” said Mr. Ratliff. “You’re throwing it away. Come with me; we’ll go to Dr. Thorne and you can get his advice--”
“I don’t need advice,” said Gabe, and that wasn’t Pete’s imagination, his voice really was shaking. “I want to go. You can’t hold me here. If you won’t give me my clothes back, I’ll walk out of here naked, and I’ll get the cops to come get them. I. Am. Leaving.”
Mr. Ratliff seemed to swell. “You’ll end up dead. You’ll overdose, you’ll kill yourself or go insane or end up in jail. You really want to risk your life and the lives of all those around you for your own selfishness and laziness?”
A bitter smile rose on Gabe’s face. “Yeah. I do. Get me out of here.”
Mr. Ratliff came to himself then, and sent the rest of them away. Travis led them to formation. Pete walked with his head bowed, but he could see Mikey ahead of him, hands clenched in the loose fabric of his jeans.
Pete stood beside Mikey in formation. Night came on sooner now than it had, and the blazing thread of sunset was giving way to oncoming night. The wind whipped across the green, grit skirling into the air by their legs.
No one moved. Not without the order. They'd stand here till they dropped, each of them, even Pete, even Mikey. They had more to lose than anyone if any hint of the plan reached the wrong person.
Pete shivered and straightened his back. They were so close. Just two more nights, and Gabe would be waiting every night after that for a week. They just had to get out, get out and make it to the road before the counselors could catch them. They could do it. They could make it. They had to make it. The wires were bent, and as soon as there was a shot, the plan would swing into action.
At his side, his fingers curled into a fist.
The wind whirled on.
Ryan's hand was tense on Brendon's shoulder, from breakfast to school to Circle to lunch. It made Brendon nervous too. He flinched at every nudge, kept his eyes on the ground, and in general did everything he could to act the beaten, broken prisoner they thought he was, until Ryan took him to the bathroom and under cover of bathroom sounds Brendon hissed, "What's going on?"
Ryan shook his head. "Don't worry about it."
"Right," snapped Brendon in a whisper, "no fucking problem, I'm sure everything's fine and dandy."
Ryan's fingers dug in a warning squeeze. "Keep quiet," he said, breath ghosting over Brendon's ear. "Everything's just the same, and you'd better believe it if you don't want to end up in Malaysia. Everything is just fine."
"Then why are you so freaked?" Brendon asked when he was washing his hands.
"I'm not. I'm just watching."
Mikey's still only on Level Two. I asked Dr. Thorne if I could give him some of my points, but he said no, and he's right, Mikey has to learn for himself. I know it would just take a little more for him to get up to Level Three, though. I don't get why he isn't just doing it. We'd be able to talk more often, and once we hit Level Four or Five, maybe we'll have proved we're dedicated to the program and we can be in the same house. It's been seven months and he's still on Level Two while I'm almost at Level Four. I don't get why he won't just do it.
Maybe he's mad at me for getting us sent here. Maybe he's right. But it doesn't help, and I'm trying, Mikey, I'm trying.
Pete's every sense was on high alert when Travis led them past Cooperation and out to the field. He dug his nails into his palms to keep his hands from shaking. It might be nothing. But it was a break in the routine, and even if the counselors were on their guard, still. Anything could happen during a break.
He caught Mikey's eyes across the circle. Mikey's face revealed nothing, but Pete knew he felt the same thing. Pete didn't know what he was looking for, but he was pretty sure he'd know it when he saw it.
The jar went around. Pete's slip was blank, so that wasn't going to be it. When he looked at Mikey, Mikey gave a tiny shake of his head. So it wasn't going to be him either.
Adam stepped forward then, and Mike. "Oooh," came up from the guys, and from the counselors behind them. Mike grinned and cracked his knuckles. Adam looked pale but determined. "Place your bets, gentlemen!" called Mr. Paul, and the game was on.
Mike was the better fighter, no question. He outweighed Adam, and Adam still hadn't learned to use his new height to his advantage. But Adam, after the last few rap sessions, was pissed as hell, and he got in a few shots that he never would have if he were being careful. He got Mike in the ear; Mike roared and came up from under to slam a fist into Adam's stomach. Adam fell over, and Mike swarmed him.
Everyone cheered and pulled in closer to see. Everyone but Mikey. Everyone but Pete. This was it, the chance Pete had been holding out for. It wasn’t midnight; there were still counselors around, but there was no guarantee that would pan out. They had to take the opportunity they could get. He slipped behind Alex, then faded back until he was out of the field lights, and then he was running.
Gerard woke to a hand over his mouth and Mikey's finger to his lips. Mikey's glasses were askew. He leaned down next to Gerard, and what was he doing, was he insane? Gerard didn’t know much, but he knew this was wrong, this was disobedient and would only set them back--
"Come with me if you want to live," Mikey whispered in his ear.
Brendon jumped when Ryan touched his shoulder. "Come," Ryan mouthed, eyes more alive than Brendon had ever seen. Before he knew it, Brendon was on his feet. His eyes darted to his locker, but Ryan shook his head and grabbed his wrist. "Now."
The dirt was chilly, and he stubbed his toe on a rock, but his feet were tough now and he barely noticed. He followed Ryan past the darkened houses, across the wet green, and only then glanced behind to see someone following. He nearly screamed. "It's Gerard and Mikey," panted Ryan. "Come on."
Brendon put his head down and ran.
Mikey was coming, Ryan was coming, oh fuck it was happening, it was really going to happen. Pete knelt and scrabbled at the fence. No point in being discreet now; he pulled at the wire, kicked it until it bent up high enough to get his head through. He pulled himself forward, but fuck, he was caught, it wasn't wide enough to get his shoulders through, so he slid back and turned, kicked hard, and some of the wire gave, but it wasn't enough, even Mikey couldn't fit through it, and he kicked again and again--
There were shouts. Lights. They were close enough for Pete to see the rictus of panic on Ryan's face, the intense concentration on Mikey's, and behind them the larger figures of the counselors racing to catch up.
The fence was the bottleneck. They always knew it. Pete kicked again, and another of the rusted wires broke, and he pushed at the others, praying it would be enough, maybe, maybe it would be enough.
Ryan got there first and dove for the opening without hesitation. When his shoulder caught on the broken wires, he ripped at it, snarling. It left a bloody gash down his arm, but he pulled himself through, and then he was on the other side, looking back with wide eyes.
Brendon followed, arms first, and Ryan pulled him through, though his shirt was left in shreds and his underwear was halfway down his ass. Pete looked back. They were gaining. They were coming. Pete stood up.
Both Ryan and Brendon yanked on Gerard's arms; Pete was quickly grateful they hadn't run off and left the rest of them alone. Mikey pushed at Gerard’s legs. “Go,” yelled Pete, “go go go--”
“You go,” said Mikey, just as Gerard pulled himself out. “I’ll go over.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot. They’ll drag you down, go through.”
Mikey gave him a wild look; Pete looked back over his shoulder and saw Mayers and Greenbaum bearing down on them. No time. Pete grabbed Mikey, kissed him hard, and shoved him against the fence. "Go!" he shouted, and then he turned and launched himself at them.
The night air stabbed Gerard's lungs. He ran like he had never believed he could, outside the circles of light and into the darkness and the stars. Adrenaline coursed through him, sharpening his sight and hearing. He didn't know where they were running, but Mikey had a direction and Gerard followed.
The sound of revving motors cut through the night, and sudden spotlights lit up and bounced toward them. Ryan swerved and ran to the left, his long legs pistoning like he actually believed he could outrun a Jeep. Brendon followed, and after a brief hesitation, so did Mikey. "Where?" gasped Gerard.
"Toward the moon," Mikey gritted out. "Toward the road."
There was no way they could outrun them, of course. Even with all the training they'd been forced into, no runner could escape a car. It didn't stop Gerard from filling his lungs with free, cold air. It didn't turn him back. Points didn't matter, levels didn't matter, nothing but him and Mikey running together under the stars was important anymore. Gerard set his sights on the moon low in the sky, and he ran.
Brendon looked behind. They were gaining, those bastards. Fuck them, let them come. He wasn't their puppet anymore. Now they knew it too. Maybe going to Venezuela or Malaysia wouldn't be so terrible, now that he knew he could do this.
Ryan's legs flashed in the white of the spotlights; Brendon focused on that and not on the roar of the engines, so when a pair of headlights suddenly appeared ahead of them he tripped and went flying. Only Ryan grabbing his wrist and yanking him into the car saved him. He looked around with wild eyes at the driver laying on his horn, Gabe in the front seat screaming obscenities at the oncoming Jeep, Gerard and Mikey tumbling in behind him and slamming the door, the car leaping ahead and barely missing hitting the Jeep, close enough so Brendon could see the looks of shock on Mr. Robinson's and Mr. Paul's faces. He scrambled over the others and stuck his head out of the window. "Yeah!" he screamed. "Yeah, you like that, motherfuckers? Fuck you!" He flipped them off viciously with both hands. "Eat shit, assholes! Fuck you! Fuck you!"
When Mikey yanked him back inside, he was gasping for breath, and Gabe was laughing hysterically. "You crazy motherfucker! Jesus!"
"Sit back, cabron!" advised the driver and took a sharp left onto a dirt road.
"Goddamn, Sal," Gabe yelled just as Ryan grabbed Mikey's arm. "Where's Pete?"
"Not coming," said Mikey, staring out of the windshield.
"The fuck, Mikey--"
"Not coming," Mikey snarled. Ryan dropped his hand.
The lights of the Jeep grew smaller and smaller until Sal screeched onto another road and they vanished entirely. Gabe looked back over his shoulder. "Settle in, guys," he said. "It's a long drive to Mexico."
Brendon stared at Gabe. “I don’t have a passport,” was the only thing he could think of to say.
“That’s okay,” said Sal. “I know the back roads. ‘s gonna take a lot longer, but they won’t find us. Gabe told me what’s going on--” he swerved to avoid a big rock-- “and they aren’t gonna keep looking once we’re over the border. Too much legal shit to deal with.”
“It’s okay,” Ryan said in his ear over the roaring of the engine and the gusts from the windows. “Just sit. It’s okay, it’s all gonna be okay.”
Brendon turned huge eyes on Ryan. Slowly, slowly, he slid his hand to Ryan’s. Ryan took it. Brendon closed his eyes and sat back. When Ryan pressed himself against Brendon’s side, Brendon shuddered, turned his face into Ryan’s neck, and just breathed.
Chapter 6: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"I don't appreciate being woken up in the middle of the night," said Dr. Thorne, "and told to come in and deal with this situation. I am not pleased." He looked over at Mr. Dennison. "How many was it?"
"Brendon Urie, Ryan Ross, and Gerard Way from Honesty," said Mr. Dennison, "and Mikey Way from Cooperation."
"Four." Dr. Thorne tapped his fingers. "I expected better from Gerard. Whose idea was this little escapade?"
Pete sniffed back blood. He kept his eyes closed and didn't speak until Mr. Ratliff's fingers dug into his shoulder harder than Gabe's ever had. The pain racing down his arm sparked starbursts behind his eyelids. "God! Fuck, fuck--”
"That's enough of that language," said Dr. Thorne coldly.
"I'm sorry." Pete stared at Dr. Thorne. There had been a question, hadn’t there? His head pounded where he'd caught a kick in the temple. "I'm sorry," he said again.
Dr. Thorne folded his hands and looked at Pete like he was a half-squashed worm on the sidewalk. “I don't think you know what sorry means," he said finally. He made a gesture to Mr. Ratliff. Pain lanced down Pete's neck and jaw, and it lasted, fingers dug in under the bone to find the sensitive nerve cluster, so that when they let go he was crying and didn't even try to pretend otherwise.
"Do you know what happens to boys who decide not to learn the lessons that Desert Rock teaches? I'm sure your friend Gabe filled you in on his experience at Playa Serenidad. How does that sound, Pete, a little trip to the beach? Think you'd like it there?"
Pete shook his head and tried to stop crying.
"There's a facility in the Mariana Islands where the students do nothing but run laps all day long. They don't have Reflection in a nice air-conditioned room; they serve their punishments in dog cages outside. Maybe a year or two there would be good for you."
"My parents won't let you," said Pete, but he didn’t really believe it. They’d do what was convenient. Taking Pete back now wouldn’t be. He caught his breath, wiped the tears from his eyes and kept the hurt pushed down, way down.
Dr. Thorne looked like he knew it too. He leaned forward. "By the time I've spoken with your parents, they'll be begging me to find a place that will accept you. You rejected our help. I think you'll come to regret that."
“I’m sorry,” said Pete again, even though he didn’t mean it. He took a deep breath to pull himself together. Mikey had gotten away, at least. Pete couldn’t be sorry about that.
“You will be,” Dr. Thorne said. “Take him away. I’ll call his parents in the morning. Don’t get too comfortable, Pete, you’ll be leaving us in a few days. Send my regards to your new director. I’ll be sure to let him know what to expect from you.
Fine. Pete gave up. He was fucked. There wasn’t much worse that could happen. So as the counselors dragged him to his feet and off to Reflection, Pete twisted in their arms. "Sir!"
“Yes?" asked Dr. Thorne.
Pete smiled, and he could taste the blood staining his teeth. "Fuck you.”
Although this is a work of fiction, these private prisons for teens are real. Billed as "therapeutic boarding schools" or "behavior modification facilities," they charge thousands of dollars per month to torture children in the guise of helping them. Many who run these places are not qualified to teach or provide psychological help. Those facilities located outside the US borders are not under US law, and have little if any oversight.
To find out more, you can visit AntiWWASP, The WWASP Diaries, Teen Advocates USA, or The Straights. Help At Any Cost, by Maia Szalavitz, is an in-depth look into the history and extent of these programs.