Sisters in Sanity(9) by Gayle Forman

The next morning, when it was Christmas for real, the counselors distributed our holiday cards from home. I got three, one from my grandma and two from my dad. One had a bunch of reindeer sitting around a giant candy cane and it was from the whole family; the other was of Santa on a Harley-Davidson in a biker outfit and just said, “Be merry, Firefly.” When the day was over, I couldn’t help thinking that while this definitely ranked as one of the worst Christmases of my life, in a weird way, it was also one of the best.

Chapter 12

“Why do you think your father sent you here, Brit?” Clayton asked me. It was the middle of January, and the skies had turned white with clouds and the wind howled icy drafts up and down the building. It was truly dreary.

“Because my stepmother wanted me out of the way.”

“Don’t you think that excuse is a little too convenient? Life’s not a fairy tale.” She droned on. Of course, this is also what the Sisters had been saying, but I wasn’t about to discuss that with Clayton. That was the maddening thing about her. I mean, Sheriff could be gruff and harsh, but like most people at Red Rock, he didn’t have the patience to stick with it. But with Clayton it was like my refusal to get with her program was some kind of personal affront. Whenever I came to her dank little office, she made a big show of going through my file and pursing her lips to show me how much she disapproved. Then she’d say something like, “You might think your defiant attitude is something to be proud of, but truly, it’s not. It’s just a sign of your denial.” Blah blah-blah blah. And you couldn’t just tune Clayton out. She wasn’t dumb, and she knew how to find your sore spots. After a few months with no great breakthrough for me, she started hitting mine big-time.

“Your father would not have sent you here had he not wanted you to get some help.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Why won’t you talk to me about your mother?”

“You know, Dr. Clayton. I’m sure my dad has told you the whole story. And besides, it’s not like I haven’t thought about my mom before. I’ve had three years to work through the situation with my mom, and talking to you isn’t going to change anything.”

She sighed again and shook her head. “Are you angry at your father for sending you here?”

“No, I’m grateful. I love it.”

She scribbled some notes. Clayton was no fan of sarcasm. “You don’t trust me much, do you?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“Why not?”

This question always slayed me. In spite of their nasty tactics, Red Rock’s counselors were always asking why we didn’t trust them. For once, I decided to tell the truth. I looked into Clayton’s pinched-up face and let loose: “Because this is not the after-school-special version of life, in which I open up to you and you calm my fears and I leave here fixed. What you want, what Red Rock wants, is to turn me into some obedient automaton, who’ll never disagree with my stepmother, talk out of line to Dad, or do ‘rebellious’ stuff like play music or dye my hair. What you don’t get, what my Dad doesn’t seem to get anymore, is that I’m not rebellious at all. I was raised this way. ‘Always march to your own drummer,’ my mom used to tell me. Those were her words to live by. So it’s not like I switched course. Everyone else did. That’s why I’m here.”

When I stopped talking, I was breathing hard. I expected Clayton to be moved, pissed off at least, but judging by her blasé expression, I may as well have been speaking Swahili.

“Are you angry at your father for divorcing your mother?”

I slumped back in my seat, suddenly exhausted by her questions. I understood why Dad divorced Mom, because even though she was still out there somewhere, she was gone, and the doctors said that she wasn’t coming back—not the way she used to be anyhow. If Mom had died, I would’ve wanted Dad to get on with his life, not to spend his days moping for her, and I guess it was kind of like she had died. But another part of me wondered how he could move on without her.

“Why wasn’t your mother committed?” Clayton asked.

I shrugged again. Truth was, Dad was the only one who could legally do it, and he didn’t have the stomach for it. Grandma used to plead with him, crying, “Please, please, she’s my little girl.” Dad would cry back, “I can’t.” He’d fallen in love with Mom’s free spirit, and he couldn’t bring himself to clip her wings. And in case anyone thinks I’m in denial, it’s not lost on me that while my Dad couldn’t commit my totally nutso mom—even with everyone begging him to—all it took was a little nudging from Stepmonster for him to lock me up. But I wasn’t about to share that with Clayton. We’d had enough “honesty” for one day. In fact, I’d had enough of Clayton for one day too. I needed to get away from her, even if I had to burn a bridge to do it.

“You know, if you’re so interested in my dad, maybe you should shrink his head. Oh, but you’re not really a shrink, are you? Just play one on TV, huh.”

Clayton snapped my file shut and licked her pale, thin lips. We still had fifteen minutes left in the session, but she stood up. My little jibe had worked. It had also cost me a level. “I’m moving you back to down to Level Three. I’m disappointed in you. Very disappointed.” She stared at me with her best look of disapproval, trying to gauge how upset I was. Whatever. Level Four, Level Three—the only difference was I couldn’t wear makeup, which I didn’t anyway. And I couldn’t talk on the phone, which was just as well because my weekly five minutes with Dad were really awkward. Neither of us knew what to say, and half the time, Dad put a babbling Billy on the line to fill the silence.

Demotion, promotion, it didn’t seem to matter. Now that I’d passed the three-month mark, I knew I wasn’t getting out of Red Rock soon. I got up to leave, but before I was out the door, Clayton went in for the kill. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to talk about your mother, about the ways in which her nature mirrors your own.”

“What are you talking about?” I screamed, unable to control myself any longer. “My mom didn’t just stay out too late because she was playing in a band or because she didn’t like her stepmother! She was sleeping in parks, hiding from imaginary people she thought were trying to kill her. My mom got sick, like with cancer, but in her head. She has a mental illness, not a character defect. And I’ll never talk about her with you. Never!”

I ran back to my room and threw myself on the bed, sobbing uncontrollably for my mom and for everything else I’d lost. I didn’t go to dinner, and none of the counselors forced me to go, either. After all, I was crying. They liked it when you cried.

“Darling, darling, what is it?” Bebe asked. It was after lights-out, and I had my head jammed into my pillow, which was soaked with tears.

“Brit, why are you so upset? You’re scaring me,” Martha said.

“It’s lights-out. Can you all be quiet? Otherwise we’re going to get in trouble,” Tiffany whined.

“Not as much trouble as you’re in if you don’t butt out and shut your trap, Tiffany,” Bebe snarled.

“You guys are so nasty. I swear I’m going to tell Clayton.”

“You do that and you’ll regret the day you were born,” Martha said in an uncharacteristic show of toughness. It would’ve made me smile if I hadn’t felt so awful.

“Whatever,” Tiffany said.

“Brit, tell us what happened,” Martha begged.

I couldn’t talk. Didn’t want to say anything. Bebe and Martha just leaned over my bed, ignoring Tiffany’s dramatic sighs. Martha stroked my arm and Bebe whispered “Don’t cry, sweetie,” until I finally fell asleep.

Chapter 13

“This girl needs some cheering,” said V, who, along with Cassie, Bebe, and Martha, was standing over me at lunch. It had been two days since the horrible session with Clayton, and I was still feeling kind of wrecked by it.

“You guys, don’t sit here. We’ll pay for it,” I said.

“We can live dangerously just this once,” V said, motioning to the others. “Sit down.”

They sat down, all looking at me with a strange mix of worry and concern, which was nice but made me feel like a lab rat. Then they looked at one another and smiled.

“What? What’s going on?”

“So listen, Cinderella, I have some good news.” Bebe said.

“You’re going home?”

“Not quite, darling, but nice of you to think it. No, this pertains to you, all of us really. We have a fairy godmother, you see. A most unlikely one,” Bebe said.

“Who?”

“My mother, of course. She has found her calling, hosting a cable show all about beauty spas. Could it be more perfect? Anyhow, as it turns out, there are several chichi spas in the area. Something about the red clay being therapeutic. Mother’s coming here to film them. So guess who’s getting a day at the spa?”

“You?” I said.

“Well, of course me, darling. But also you four.”

“No way,” I said. “They’ll never let us go. Especially now, when they’re keeping such an eye on us. And I just got demoted, remember?”

“Ahh, you underestimate the power of celebrity, even washed-up C-list celebrity. Mother has promised to grant an audience with the staff, and the counselors are all peeing themselves with glee. Even Sheriff asked if he could get an autographed picture. I had my mother specially request your presence. Trust me, they’ll do what she asks. All you need is permission from your own parents to go.”

“Me at a girlie spa,” Cassie said. “My parents are gonna faint from joy.”

“Yeah, all I have to do is tell my parents that I’m getting an anti-cellulite treatment,” Martha said.

“Even if they did let me go, how am I gonna get permission? I’m demoted, remember. Level Three. No phone calls. Besides, my dad’s probably pissed that I’m not progressing fast enough.”

“She’s coming in ten days. Write a letter today. And make it a good one, full of introspection. At the end, tug on his heartstrings and ask if you can go. If you mail the letter right away, your dad will have time to call in with permission.”

“Unless Stepmonster reads the letter first. But even if Dad says yes, I can’t see Clayton agreeing.”

“Clayton doesn’t make the final decisions on such things, my dear. The Sheriff does. And he’s gaga for Mother.”

“Okay, I’ll write to him. Maybe as an added incentive, I’ll tell him I really want to cut out my streaks.” This wasn’t entirely untrue. In the months since I’d been at Red Rock, the magenta had faded to a rather putrid shade of orange and my roots were coming in under the black.

“Speaking of which, I’m in desperate need of a cut,” V said. Her once-choppy locks were also looking a little tired.

“That reminds me. I’ve always wondered where you got such a cool haircut out here. Did they let you go to a salon in town or something?”

V and Bebe laughed.

“You’re sweet, Brit. But if my hair turned out cool, it was purely accidental. I had really long hair when I got here, but I shaved it all off.”

“What?”

“I used the electric razors they give us.”

“Wow, that’s so punk rock.”

“You don’t have the lock on rebellion, you know.” V grinned at me in that snarky way of hers, which by now I’d learned was totally affectionate.

“Ladies, can we get back to the subject at hand? A day out. A day of beauty. It’s going to be divine. You know what they say. ‘Look good, feel good.’”

You wouldn’t guess it to look at me, but I’m a sucker for pampering and stuff. Mom and I used to have do-it-yourself beauty days at home. But I’d never been to a real spa. And the thought of a day out gave me a burst of energy. All of us were really excited. Every time we passed one another in the hall, we’d call out, “Look good, feel good,” and laugh. Even the staff let us have our joke. Everyone was looking forward to the pending arrival of Marguerite Howarth, aka Ellis Hardaway, the resident villain on Lovers and Strangers for fifteen years before she was murdered by her half sister. No one even dared call Bebe “Rodeo Drive” anymore, for fear of offending her, I guess, and being excluded from meeting her mom. And Bebe herself seemed the most excited of all.

“I can’t wait for you to meet Mother,” she gushed. “She’s a major diva and a bit of a head case, don’t get me wrong. All actors are. But she’s a lot of fun, and she will simply adore you all.”

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