Sisters in Sanity(7) by Gayle Forman

This was true. Red Rock even printed up these jolly cards with a picture of a bunch of smiling students in Santa hats and shorts for us to send home. They were total propaganda as far as I was concerned.

I had written my dad several versions of the same letter, but in the end I just tore them up and buried them in the quarry—in part because, as V warned me, outgoing letters would be scrutinized by staff, so you had to watch your attitude or they’d hold what you’d written against you in therapy. Clayton already acted as if she knew me better than I knew myself, and her smug attitude gave me the urge to smash things. There was no way I was going to let her read my mail to my dad, and I didn’t think I could fake a casual, hey-how’s-it-going letter to him either.

See, the thing was that in two months at Red Rock I’d had a lot of time to think, maybe too much time. I thought about Jed constantly; it was the only thing that made me feel good. But the rest of the time, I thought about Dad and Mom and me and, unfortunately, Stepmonster. And I thought about how much Dad had changed. As much as I wanted to pin this whole thing on Stepmonster, the sad reality was that Dad had gone along with her plan to send me away. If you had told me five years ago that my mellow, sweet father would dump his kid off at a boot camp, I would’ve told you that nothing, not even a gun to the head, could have pushed him to do such a thing.

“So why would he go along with it?” V asked me. The Sisters in Sanity had taken to meeting once a week in the empty office for our real therapy. It was the only time we could really talk about things that were bugging us, so I’d floated my theory to the group that Stepmonster hadn’t acted alone.

“I don’t know. He’s just kind of a pushover, and she’s a serious ball breaker.”

“But you’re his daughter. Surely if he didn’t want you to be here, he could’ve mustered up some kind of opposition,” Bebe said.

“Maybe he just doesn’t want me around.”

“Of course he wants you around!” Martha protested.

V arched her brow, Bebe narrowed her eyes, and Cassie guffawed.

“What?” Martha protested again.

“Darling, the obvious. If Dad wanted her around, why would she be here?” Bebe asked, turning back to me. “So, I think we’ve established that aside from some standard oppositional defiance disorder—and if you ask me, the sixteen year-old who doesn’t exhibit those ‘symptoms’ is the one that’s about to go Columbine—you’re as sane as the next girl. So why did Daddy send you packing?”

“Maybe…..” I started and then stopped.

“Maybe what?” V prompted.

“Maybe I’m just a reminder…..of what happened to Mom.” The minute the words came out, I knew that they were true. The Sisters knew that Mom had gone schizophrenic and disappeared, but I’d spared them the saga: the year-long ordeal of her personality change, the endless psychiatrists, Dad begging Mom to try different medications and even shock therapy, and then when she wouldn’t, agonizing over whether or not to commit her. I didn’t tell them about the last time we’d seen her, hanging out in back of Powell’s bookstore, near the Dumpsters. She looked more like the ratty-looking homeless people you see all over Portland than like someone’s mom. She didn’t even seem to recognize me. And I didn’t tell them how after that, I felt Dad starting to pull away from me.

“You did say that yah look a lot like your mom,” Cassie said.

“Oh, well then,” Bebe said, sweeping her hand through the air. “Mystery solved. And I can empathize. I’m certain my mom holds my striking resemblance to Husband Number Three—that would be my dad—against me. He was, after all, the only man who ever dumped her.”

“No way. You look just like your mom,” Martha said, blushing. “I used to watch her on Lovers and Strangers. She was the best. I can’t believe she never got an Emmy.”

“Why, thank you, Martha, but what has that got to do with anything?”

“Because Brit looks like her mom, so she’s a constant reminder. That’s why her dad let Stepmonster send her here.”

“I don’t know, Brit,” V said. “This sounds a bit beyond the average Cinderella story. After all, Cinders’ dad was dead, which explains her situation with the stepmom. But you have your dad, so the comparison doesn’t quite work.”

It occurred to me that the Sisters were only half right. Dad had probably sent me away because I reminded him of Mom, but after a few sessions with Clayton I had started to suspect that his reason may have been something even worse. What if he thought I was going to end up like her?

Clayton continued to grill me about my lack of epistolary enthusiasm. I just kept telling her that I wasn’t very good at writing and that I figured Dad was getting lots of updates about me from the school. “He seems really happy about my grades and has mentioned coming for a visit,” I told Clayton. “I’ll just tell him everything then. But I love getting all the letters he sends me.” She gave me a hard look. I never could tell if she bought my fake perkiness, but why else would she have advanced me to Level Four? V told me it was because, as an insurance-only stay, they had to make it seem like I was ready to go home after three months. Most people seemed to advance to Level Four quickly, but if your parents had deep pockets, you could fester at Red Rock for months.

Still, I wasn’t really lying when I said I looked forward to some of Dad’s letters. I’d snuck a letter out to Jed in November, just a quick note to say hi and explain my situation and ask about the band. I didn’t want to go into much detail about my Red Rock experience, because part of me was really embarrassed about it. I wrote the letter to the whole band, even though I mailed it—or a graduate named Annemarie mailed it—to Jed’s address. I also gave them a quick rundown of how the code worked, just in case they wanted to write back. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on Jed to write back to little incarcerated me. I wasn’t after his pity. But when I got my first letter after Thanksgiving, I knew it was from him. He had an old manual Underwood typewriter that he loved, and he’d even used it to type the address on the envelope.

Jed got the whole code thing so perfectly, which made a certain sense I guess, since songwriters are always writing in code. Most of his letter was about my “Uncle Claude,” who plays violin in a chamber music ensemble. Claude had been sick of late, and the ensemble had been forced to play without him—the music was suffering. Then he told me about how the Portland skies were even rainier than usual—I wasn’t entirely sure if that was a coded message that he missed me or if he was just being honest; you never knew with Oregon. But he ended the letter by saying that the winter was so long and dark that it made him yearn for summertime and fireflies. Which of course had my heart flipping.

Chapter 10

Every other week in the warmer months, Levels Three and Four got hauled on a ten-mile hike straight up into the hills. Sheriff liked to call these little expeditions “backcountry therapy.”

“Backcountry therapy, my ass,” Bebe said. “It’s a death march.”

“I hate these,” Martha whined. “I thought they were supposed to stop in winter.”

“Only when the snow comes, my dear. It’s late this year. Poor us. God, it’s hot for December. I’m sweating like a pig already. Ugh.” Bebe checked her canteen. “I can’t tell how much water I have left.” For some reason, they gave us just one dinky water canteen, a Baggie of trail mix, and an apple.

“So we’ll sweat off our fat,” Martha explained.

“No, darling, because suffering builds character,” Bebe said. “If we’re really hungry we’re supposed to forage for food or something.”

“I’d probably end up eating a poisonous mushroom,” Martha insisted.

“Maybe you’d get lucky and get one of the magic kind,” Bebe replied.

“Guys, it’s the desert,” I said. “They don’t have mushrooms here. We’d have to eat cactus.”

“Gross. Absolutely gross,” Bebe huffed.

“Hey, you three,” said Missy. She was a super-devoted Red Rocker who’d advanced to Level Four in practically a week. “Sheriff says to pick up the pace and stop the chatting.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bebe said, full of sarcasm.

Missy returned to the front of the pack and Bebe shook her head. “Stockholm Syndrome. So many girls get it. They come to love their captors.”

“They’re just brown-nosing to get out of here,” I said.

“Maybe it starts that way, but they start to enjoy it. They even like these damn hikes. God, how much farther are we expected to go?” Bebe asked.

Bebe continued to bitch her way up and down the mountain, but the girl had logged enough hours on a Stairmaster to handle it. So could I. In Portland, I rode my old Schwinn cruiser around town. Plus, back in the day, I used to go hiking with Mom and Dad through Forest Park. Stepmonster, of course, preferred to spend weekends at the mall. I secretly enjoyed the death march, in part because I knew how much she would have hated it.

Martha, on the other hand, had a tough time of it. “I can’t breathe,” she cried through her wheezes. “I’m never gonna make it.”

“You always say that, dear, and you always make it,” Bebe said.

“Just one foot in front of the other,” I encouraged her.

“But my feet are killing me.”

“Don’t think about that. Look at the scenery,” I said. It was pretty otherworldly—with red rock, red clay, and weird coffin-shaped boulders jutting out everywhere. It looked like Mars.

“I don’t want to look at the scenery,” Martha moaned. “I don’t want to be here at all. I want to be back home in Ohio, walking through a nice park to have a picnic.”

“Picnic. Fab idea. What are we having?” Bebe asked.

“Huh?”

“What’s on the menu for the picnic?” Bebe asked again.

Martha fell silent for a while, but then she piped up: “My mom’s chicken-salad sandwiches. They’re the best. Not too mayonnaise-y.”

“What else?” I asked, glad to distract her.

“My mom makes these twice-baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream. They’re supposed to be eaten hot, but they taste even better cold. Then we’ll have some cut-up carrots and celery to be healthy. And watermelon. And ice-cold lemonade. The homemade kind, not the powdery stuff.”

“What about dessert?” I asked.

Martha pondered that for a second. “Can we have two choices?”

“It’s your picnic, darling. We can have as many as you want,” Bebe said.

“Icebox cake. It’s this thing my grandma used to make. Chocolate biscuits all crunched up with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and then frozen. It’s like an airy ice-cream cake that doesn’t melt all over.”

Bebe and I were both salivating now. “What’s the other option?” I asked.

“Strawberry shortcake. Little individual ones, really thin, with fat strawberries that we picked ourselves, and fresh whipped cream.”

“Oh, stop it Marth,” I said. “This is torturous, worse than the hike.”

“I know, I’m hungrier than ever,” Martha said. But she was also almost at the summit. When we sat down to eat our apples and trail mix we tried to pretend they were Martha’s dream picnic. It almost worked.

Two weeks later, we had the first snowfall of the season. “Thank God,” Martha said, looking at the falling flakes. “No more backcountry therapy.”

I wished group therapy would be over for the season, too. I came to dread the sessions almost as much as my meetings with Clayton. I had tried to fly under the radar for the first few months, and it sort of worked. During the CT sessions, I’d only been put in the hot seat that one time with Sheriff. But after Thanksgiving, all of a sudden my honeymoon was over. Now it was like I was the counselor’s pet project. I wound up in the CT circle twice in one week, and twice they couldn’t get me to cry, even when they mentioned my mom. Some of the Stockholm-Syndrome girls were starting to get nasty with me too, constantly harping on me about not working my program. As if it was any of their business.

Plus, now that the weather was cooler, the counselors patrolled the yard to keep warm, and that kind of ruined the joy of the quarry. We couldn’t talk as much, and we were separated a lot more. And they just got randomly nasty and controlling for no reason. I happen to have a small bladder and had to pee a lot because I drink lots of water when I’m building walls. When it was hot, we got quarry bathroom breaks once an hour, but now that it was cold, we were only permitted to go every two hours. Most of the time, when I raised my hand, they let me go, but one day, one of the goons refused to let me. “I think you use your bladder as a form of control,” he told me. Yeah, to control my pee. I was about to wet my pants so I waited for him to pass and squatted behind a rock.

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