Sisters in Sanity(5) by Gayle Forman

“Brit, you’re in denial. And I’m not talking about a river in Egypt.”

I jerked my head up. A Level Four girl named Kimberly was glaring at me. Sheriff loved that stupid denial joke. That little suckup probably just bought her ticket to Level Five at my expense.

“That’s right. You know you’re gonna have to come clean sometime,” Sheriff said. “Might as well stop wasting all our time. ’Cause that moment of reckoning is coming soon. Ain’t that right, girls?”

“It is.”

“Coming soon.”

“Happens to us all.”

“Gotta look into the mirror.”

The chorus of psychobabble went on. I tuned it out and went back into my head.

I knew it was pointless to be in love with Jed. At the end of every show, there was always a handful of girls waiting by the backstage door: cool-looking girls with sleek black bangs, funky granny glasses, or buzz cuts and nose rings. After we loaded our stuff, sometimes Jed would slip away to meet with one of them. Occasionally, I’d think he had a girlfriend, but the gig-girls never seemed to last longer than a few weeks. See, I told myself. It’s better to be his friend, his protégé, his little sister than some two-week stand. That was how I comforted myself, anyhow.

I was so grateful to have the band in my life. Especially once Stepmonster saw the double blue line on her pregnancy test. Then and there, whatever respect she’d had for Dad’s and my relationship vanished, and suddenly it was like I became the competition. She started talking to Dad about me right in front of me, about my bad grades, my late hours, my being too young to be in a band.

She should’ve been glad about Clod. It was the only thing that kept me from heaving her off the Hawthorne Bridge. I was a mess at practices back then. I’d start crying mid-set or just flub a song I knew really well. I was sure they’d chuck me from the band, but instead they’d stop playing, Jed would make a pot of coffee, and they’d wait for me to calm down. Denise would ad-lib funny songs about Stepmonster on her bass to try to cheer me up. Erik would offer me a bong load.

I lived for those practices and our shows, when we’d all pile into Jed’s Vanagon, stopping at a taqueria near his house for pre-show burritos. Then we’d play, usually a house party or a coffeehouse, but sometimes even a twenty-one-and-over club. Being up on stage, watching people totally rocking out to what we were doing, I felt that same sense of clicking that I’d experienced when I tried out for Clod, only a thousand times stronger. After the shows, we’d all be hyper and we’d pack up our stuff and go to Denny’s to pig out on pancakes and coffee. I’d go home feeling happy, like I belonged, like I still had a family.

The day Stepmonster went into labor, though, I had this awful sense that as soon as the baby was pushed out of her womb, I was gonna be pushed out of my dad’s heart completely. I didn’t want to be at the hospital and I didn’t want to be home alone either, so I got on my bike and just pedaled without thinking. It was only when I was three houses down from Jed’s that I realized where I’d been headed. It was one of those perfect spring days you sometimes get in Oregon in March—clear blue skies and warm. Jed was strumming an acoustic guitar on the porch. I didn’t want him to see me, so I turned around and started to ride away. Then I heard him shout, “You’re doing a roll by? That’s just rude. Get up here and hang out for a while.”

I dropped my bike against his front steps and climbed onto the porch. I must’ve looked awful, because Jed, who wasn’t big on PDA, opened his arms and let me collapse into him. I cried so hard that I soaked the sleeve of his T-shirt, but he didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t act like I’d gone all basket case on him, either. He just stroked my head and kept saying “It’s okay.” Then he made us some coffee and came back out with two mugs and a cold washcloth for my face.

“Thanks,” I said. “Stepmonster’s having the baby.”

Jed nodded. “I figured it was something like that.”

“Things are gonna get so much worse. I don’t know if I can take it.”

I’d never told the band about my mom, but they seemed to understand something heavy had gone down. Not hard if you read between the lines of my song lyrics.

“You can take it,” he said in a quiet voice.

“What makes you so sure? I mean, have you met me lately?”

Jed frowned slightly. “I know it’s been rough. But I also know that you’re strong.”

“Yeah. That’s me. Man of Steel. More like Girl of Tissue.”

Jed shook his head. “You don’t fool me. You’re tough. Stronger than you even realize.”

The next few hours were a blur of conversation and music. We took turns playing tracks from his record and CD collection, picking out songs that meant something to us. I played Jed the U2 and Bob Marley tunes I used to dance to with my mom. He played me Joan Armatrading and Frank Sinatra and things I’d never heard. The music got him talking and then he started telling me about summers in Massachusetts and fireflies.

“I’ve never seen a firefly,” I said.

“For real?”

“’Fraid so. They don’t have them out here in Oregon. We just have slugs.”

“I’ve noticed. Hang on.” He went back into his living room and pulled out a record. I could hear the needle scratch before the music came on. “This is American Music Club. Possibly the most melancholy band in the world. Seems fitting for tonight.”

The song he’d picked was called “Firefly.” It was the most achingly beautiful tune I’d ever heard. The lead singer started out inviting this girl to go outside with him and watch the fireflies darting around. His voice was so sorrowful, so full of longing. It was like he knew exactly what I was feeling. And when he played me “Firefly,” Jed showed he understood too.

Then Jed sang the chorus right to me. “You’re so pretty, baby, you’re the prettiest thing I know…...” He was staring hard at me, and I swear, crazy as this sounds, I could feel a surge of electricity connecting us. I could hardly breathe. The song ended, the record stopped, and he was still looking at me, that smile in his eyes. I wanted to kiss him so bad. I moved toward him. And then he kissed me, light as a butterfly, right on my forehead. “You should probably go home,” he whispered. “It’s late.”

I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to stay there and nuzzle my face into his neck and melt into him. But he wasn’t offering that, and I didn’t want to ruin the most romantic moment of my life.

So I left. And the next day Billy came home, and nobody could give two hoots about me at all. They were too busy cooing at the precious one, who was just a little eating, crying, pooping machine, as far as I could tell.

As for Jed, at the next band practice he was friendly and supportive like always, but it was as if that night had never happened. I was back to being his little sister. I assumed he’d forgotten all about it—until I got Dad’s letter.

“Well, I think Miss Hemphill needs a special kind of encouragement,” Sheriff bellowed. He went around with his rifle finger and stopped on Virginia, who was supposed to motivate the group by throwing out the harshest insults of all. “Miss Larson, you’ve been getting to know Miss Hemphill. What’s behind her cool façade?”

Seeing V staring at me, her eyes hard and soft at the same time, I snapped back to the present. I knew what she was thinking. Check your pride at the door. Get it over with. Give the dogs some meat to chew on or they’ll really come after you. And I knew she was right. I’d been to CT enough to see how it worked: Confess, cry, get out of the circle. But I was afraid that if I opened my mouth about anything, I was going to say things I didn’t want anyone to know.

“You think you’re so strong, with your punked-out hair and piercings. Except your hair’s fading and your piercings are gone, so what are you now?” V screamed. “You’re just an ordinary girl with some ink in her skin. You’re nobody special.” Her eyes searched my face, imploring me, and I understood what she was doing. She was throwing out softballs, laying a false scent for the dogs so they wouldn’t catch me. I knew then that she was a friend.

“You think you’re tough, but I’ve heard you cry,” Tiffany said, jumping right in with her mightiest effort, which was in fact total BS. I didn’t cry anymore. I gave Tiffany my most withering glare until she looked like she was going to cry. Brown-nosing wuss.

A few other girls threw out similarly lame comments but they failed to provoke. I just summoned some of that strength Jed had told me I had, and glared at everyone, daring them to mess with me. Without air a flame dies, and Sheriff didn’t have the patience of some of the other counselors, who’d leave you in the ring for the whole hour. After ten minutes, I was pulled from the circle. It meant I could be moving down to Level Two, but I didn’t care.

“Miss Wallace,” Sheriff called. He had his rifle sight pointed at Martha, my overweight roommate, and I immediately felt my stomach lurch. No one got it in CT like the fat girls, and Sheriff, a man beyond clueless to the travails of being young, female, and overweight, was notoriously cruel. What’s worse was that the whole room was amped up with unspent energy because I hadn’t given up a thing. I knew Martha was going to take the beating I should have.

“Hey, fatty.”

“Hey, lardass. Why do you eat so much?”

A couple of the girls were oinking like pigs. Sheriff was wearing a self-satisfied grin. He liked to say that you had to break before you could be fixed, but this was too much. Back at my school in Portland, this kind of name-calling would get you detention, but here it was called therapy. As the taunts rose into a chorus, Martha looked down, her face hidden behind her lank brown hair, and shuffled her feet in that way of hers, like she was an elephant trying to disappear behind a mouse. She stared at the floor while the chants continued. No one was even trying to pretend to be supportive here; there was none of the usual talk about using food to fight loneliness or to hide her beauty. Just two dozen girls taking out their body-image issues on the size-18 sucker in the mush pot. Like me, Martha didn’t say anything, but she made the mistake of averting her gaze, the sign of defeat. Her back was to me, so I didn’t know that she was crying until I saw the spatter of tears on the blue mat. Usually, once you let the waterworks go, you got a group hug, and pats on the back, and words of encouragement, but all Martha got was a Kleenex.

In the cafeteria that night, I sat next to Martha, who, like me, usually sat by herself. To my surprise, Bebe, Cassie, and V sat down next to us.

“I’m so sorry, Martha,” I said. “It was my fault you got nailed today.”

“No, it wasn’t,” V said. Her face was red with anger. “Neither of you is at fault. It’s this place’s fault. Cruelty described as therapy. No wonder so many girls leave here more messed up than when they came.”

“It was particularly brutal today, roomie,” Bebe said. “And I thought my slut intervention was bad.”

“Bad? You were havin’ a grand ole time,” Cassie said.

“It was kind of amusing. I mean, so what? Who isn’t a slut these days?”

Martha just stared down at her plate of food, until she squeaked, “I don’t get it.”

“What?” I asked.

“I’m supposed to lose weight, but the only thing they have to eat is this stuff,” she said pointing to her plate of breaded fish sticks, Tater Tots, and carrots so overboiled, they were dissolving into a blob under melted margarine. “If I eat this, I’ll just get fatter, but if I don’t eat it, I’ll get written up,” she whined, gesturing toward the clipboard-wielding counselors. And then she started sobbing.

Poor Martha. The food at Red Rock was positively vile. Everything was frozen and came in these industrial-sized metal tins: burgers of dubious meat origin, burritos, pizza, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, ice cream that didn’t have cream in it, packaged cookies. The only fresh vegetable was iceberg lettuce salad with some scary old tomatoes. It was so disgusting that I ended up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches most days. But the girls on food watch didn’t have the luxury of PB and Js. They were monitored all the time. If they ate too much, they got a black mark. If they didn’t eat enough, they were suspected of starving themselves and got a black mark. Martha was supposed to lose weight, but in the catch-22 that was lame-ass Red Rock, she also had to clean her plate.

“Martha,” V said in that sharp way of hers. “Don’t cry. Don’t let them see you weak. There are ways around everything in this place.”

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