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."