Sisters in Sanity(8) by Gayle Forman

A dorky Level Four chick named Jenny caught me and started screaming, “Oh, disgusting. She’s going on the ground!”

God, you would’ve thought I’d peed on someone. I got pulled from the quarry and hauled straight into Clayton’s office. She was livid, turning shades of red.

“Your continual defiance is getting tiresome,” she said coldly.

“I’m not defiant. My bladder is. It’s got a mind of its own,” I said.

That remark turned out to be a little too smartass. Clayton turned purple. “I thought I told you to stay away from Miss Larson.”

“What does V have to do with my bladder?” I gave Clayton my best are-you-nuts face.

“This kind of insubordination has her fingerprints all over it.”

For some reason, this made me furious, and now I was the one turning purple. “I’m my own person, Dr. Clayton, as much as you people here want to change that. I can be insubordinate all on my own.”

“I see that you can, Brit. And trust me, we’ll be working on that.”

I expected to be demoted to Level Three right there and then, but Clayton had other plans for me. They sent really bad girls to Red Rock’s version of a naughty chair. It was a small hut, next to the quarry, with a dirt floor and nothing much else. For three days, instead of working the quarry, I had to sit on my ass and not move, not talk, not eat, and not pee for four hours straight. I know it was meant to be a kind of torture, but aside from my cold feet and my numb butt I kind of enjoyed the solitude. I even felt triumphant. They couldn’t break me so easily.

But Clayton wasn’t through with me yet. A few mornings later, I got my runny oatmeal from the cafeteria and went to sit down next to V. She shook her head at me. At first I thought it was the reemergence of her Jekyll and Hyde personality, but later, at the quarry, the counselors immediately separated us, and I got the sense that something bigger was going on. Bebe filled me in that night. V had been called into Clayton’s office and berated for exerting her bad influence not just on me, but on Martha and Bebe as well. She was stripped of much of her Level Six authority (no more leading CT sessions, to V’s relief) and was warned to keep her paws off of us—or say hello to Level Five.

“It appears the party is over, darlings,” Bebe whispered from her bunk.

“What party?” Tiffany asked. “You guys aren’t throwing a party or anything? If you get me in trouble, I swear, I’ll tell.”

“There’s no party, and if there were, rest assured, you wouldn’t be invited,” Bebe replied, making me grateful, not for the first time, that I was on her good side. Sometimes she could be such a bitch.

So, that was the end of the Sisters in Sanity—at least the public face. From then on, we had to lay low, keep our friendship more secret. Which was the most lame-ass thing I’d ever heard of. What kind of messed-up place didn’t want you to have friends, to have any kind of good time? What kind of place wanted you to be lonely, sad, and miserable—all in the name of therapy?

Chapter 11

As Christmas approached, none of us was feeling too merry. First we had the Sisters crackdown. And then it was like, instead of the holidays infusing the staff with some good cheer, it made them more surly. Maybe they thought a little Christmas joy would undo all the tough love they’d been smothering us with. They paid lip service to the holidays by making us decorate the halls, but that was about it. We didn’t get any break in our schedule. No party, no tree.

The anti-Christmas got me thinking about last year. Clod had played a sold-out day-after show at the X-Ray. When we’d finished our set, we walked down to the riverfront to exchange our presents: I’d found Erik a Ramones-emblazoned cigarette lighter, Denise a beaded handbag, and Jed a pulp edition of the Jim Thompson book Pop 1280. My gift made Jed so happy that he gave me a kiss, somewhere between the mouth and the cheek. That had me buzzing for hours. And later on, when I started shivering from the cold, he pulled me close to warm me up. It was probably more a friendly thing than anything romantic, but I still felt all oozy inside and wanted to stay there forever.

There’d be none of that this year. Only Level Five and Six girls were allowed to receive presents from home. The rest of us could only get cards. Exchanging presents among ourselves? Not allowed either. Not that we had anything to give: The staff had refused our request for a Christmas-shopping field trip.

It was V’s idea to exchange presents anyhow. “We obviously can’t give traditional presents,” she said the week before Christmas. She’d managed to sneak up to Bebe and me on the cafeteria line. “Clearly that’s not an option here, or I’d give you all cashmere socks. But let’s all try to come up with something. I’ll tell Cassie; you let Martha know. Then if the coast is clear, we can sneak away to our usual place on Christmas Eve for a private party.”

Right when V said that, I knew what my present to her would be, and thanks to Clayton, I’d already started it. During all those empty hours in the Naughty Hut, I’d worked on it and the time had slipped by. I was excited about sharing my project with the Sisters, but nervous, too, that they wouldn’t like it. I was also pretty curious to see what they’d “get” me. Nervous, eager, and curious—kind of like a kid the night before Christmas.

“Well, darlings, it’s not quite a day at the Peninsula, but it will have to do,” Bebe said, spreading out a bunch of fancy moisturizers, bath salts, makeup, and hair-product samples. V had worried that Christmas Eve would be a risky time to sneak out, but half the staff was away, and the rest, we figured, were getting hammered.

“Martha, you strike me as a Kiehl’s girl,” she said, giving her some cucumber lotion. “Brit, you are so M.A.C,” she said, presenting me with a tube of Lipglass. “You’ll love it—it feels like liquid sexiness. V, your hair’s getting a little unchunky, so this ought to help,” she said, handing over some Bed Head samples. “And finally, Cassie, some lavender oil for you. It’s nice-smelling, but not too much like perfume. I know you don’t do the girlie thing.”

“Wow,” Martha said. “Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“You forget that Mother is a spa whore. Day spas and salons are practically her hobby. She’s been sending me this crap ever since I got to Level Four. So Merry Christmas, my dears. Be beautiful. Who’s next?”

“Gee, I feel like mine’s a lump of coal compared to Bebe’s beauty bounty,” Cassie said.

“Oh please, this was nothing,” Bebe said. “Just my mother’s sloppy seconds. What do you have for us, as it seems Santa has forsaken us this year?”

“Christmas chocolate,” Cassie exclaimed, pulling out a giant Hershey bar. We all started drooling.

“Cass, how did you score that?” V asked.

“My folks brought it for me.”

“But that visit was months ago.”

“In September, but I’m sure it’s still good. Chocolate lasts forever, don’t it?”

“Even antique chocolate would do,” I said. “But how could you hang on to a Hershey Bar for three months? I’d have decimated it ages ago.”

“I wanted to save it…..for somethin’ special…..like this.”

“Darling, how touching,” Bebe said.

“Can we eat it now?” Martha begged.

“Do pigs like dirt?” Cassie asked.

“God, I’ve no idea,” Bebe admitted. We all laughed.

“Just a sayin’, Bebe. Dig in, girls.” Cassie peeled off the brown wrapper, and we were instantly intoxicated by the smell of sweet, chocolatey goodness.

“Now this is bliss,” V said, biting into a piece. “Okay, Martha, you’re next.”

“Mine is sort of silly. I didn’t really know what to give.”

“Martha darling, your self-deprecation is getting old.”

“Huh?”

“Bebe means stop worrying about it,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll love it.”

“Okay, but they’re not very good. I didn’t have charcoals or anything. I had to use pencil. But here.” Martha pulled four postcard-sized pieces of cardboard out of her pocket. They were drawings of each of us, really good drawings that made us look like the girls we once were. Except in Martha’s rendition, we were superheroes. She drew me with a mane of wildly colored hair, wielding a flaming guitar like a weapon. She’d conjured Bebe like an old thirties movie star, holding a magic wand in her hand. She’d made V an Amazonian giant, towering over the world, with one high-heeled boot about to smash an ugly building that looked not unlike Red Rock. Cassie had bulging muscles under a DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS T-shirt and was juggling bricks. We all had capes, and on the bottom of each card Martha had written, “Sisters in Sanity: Superhero Series.”

“Because you guys are—you’re like my heroes,” Martha said.

Nobody said anything for a second, and we all got a little misty.

“Darling,” Bebe said. “Who knew you were such an artist?”

“These are great,” Cassie said.

“Really?” Martha asked, her eyes shining.

“Let’s raise our chocolate to Martha,” V said.

“Thanks, Martha.” I gave her a hug.

“You three outdid yourselves. And now I’m the one feeling a little silly. I’m afraid my present will be a little anticlimactic,” V said.

“Come on, V. We don’t even need a gift from you. You’re the reason we’re all here,” I reminded her. “That’s the biggest gift.”

V’s eyebrows arched up. “Wrong, Brit. We’re all here because of one another. We’re in this together.”

“Now who’s full of false modesty?” I asked. “You’re the one who gives all the good advice, teaches us how to get around, and makes this place bearable!”

“That’s sweet of you to say, Cinders, and it falls in line with my gift. On my last field trip into town, I met these women at the movies. They cornered me in the bathroom, actually. Turns out they used to be counselors here, but unlike the rest of the ghouls, these two had a conscience. One got fired for complaining about how we were treated, and then the other quit in protest. They live in St. George and they share our hatred of Red Rock. They told me that if I ever needed help escaping for the night, or getting ahold of someone on the outside, they’d try to arrange it. So, my gift to you is an IOU. I promise to arrange a prison break for each one of you. I’m totally serious. This is a real IOU, not one of those fake coupons good for doing dishes that you used to give your parents on their anniversary.”

“V, it’s too dangerous,” Martha said.

V shrugged her shoulders. “I like to live on the edge.”

“I’ll say one thing, sister,” Cassie added. “You got balls.”

“Cassie darling, don’t you mean she has eggs?” Bebe asked. “You of all people should know better.”

“Oh, shut your trap,” Cassie said affectionately.

Then they turned to me, and I was suddenly more nervous than I’d been onstage at my first gig. I took a deep breath.

“All right. First you have to imagine this with guitars, two of them, both acoustic, kind of echoey, like Nirvana unplugged. And then it goes from G to D to A minor, kind of like this.” I hummed the chords.

“You wrote us a song?” V asked. I nodded, and she flashed her completely disarming smile my way.

“So, as I was saying, it kind of goes like this, and then it’ll have a low bass and a really soft drumbeat. Very Beck-in-his-quiet-phase-sounding.”

“Brit, just sing,” V said.

And so I did.
There are monsters all around usThey can be so hard to seeThey don’t have fangs, no blood-soaked clawsThey look like you and me.But we’re not defenselessWe’re no damsels in distressTogether we can fend off the attackAll we gotta do is watch our backs.Your body is beautiful how it isWho you love is nobody’s businessWe all contemplate life and deathIt’s the poet who gives these thoughts breath.The monster is strong, don’t be mistakenIt thrives on fear—keeps us isolatedBut together we can fend off its attackAll we gotta do is watch our backs.In your darkest hourWhen the fight’s made you wearyWhen you think you’ve lost your powerWhen you can’t see clearlyWhen you’re ready to surrenderGive in to the blackLook over your shoulderI’ve got your back. We ended the first annual Divinely Fabulous Ultra-Exclusive Club of the Cuckoos Christmas party hugging each other with misty eyes. Then we clinked imaginary glasses of eggnog and sang “I’ve got your back.” V declared it was our new theme song.

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