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Authors: Todd Strasser

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BOOK: Boot Camp
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These enticements to speculate are a common feature of Circle. They're an invitation to self-doubt and a call for the others to hurl abuse. The staff at Lake Harmony are a model of energy conservation. Why should they exert themselves beating you up physically or mentally when the residents are so eager to do it for them?

David Zitface is the first to pounce. “Definitely. I've known sluts like her. You know what they say: ‘Out of sight, out of mind.' By now she's got to be with someone new.”

“Someone old enough to drive,” chimes in Chubby Girl, whose name is Rachel.

“She's probably relieved you're gone,” adds Unibrow Robert. “Like, what was she doing with a kid like you anyway?”

I wonder what they'd say if they knew that the guy Sabrina had dated before me was verbally abusive and controlling. Or that she tried to break up with me twice, but both times we got back together. It was like we couldn't help ourselves.

“What are you thinking, Garrett?” Joe asks.

“I'm not sure I agree, sir.”

“Then what do you think she's doing?”

“I don't know, sir.”

Joe gives me a withering look as if he's getting fed up and impatient. “This is bull, smart guy. I want to hear something honest. I want to hear something private and personal right now, or you're going to TI.”

When I don't answer right away, Joe stands up and starts toward the intercom next to the door. He's going to call a chaperone and have me taken to TI. Suddenly Sarah catches my eye and gives me an alarmed look.

“I worry, sir,” I hear myself blurt.

Joe turns and stares expectantly at me.

I feel a catch in my throat. “I… I don't know what she's doing, sir. And that scares me.”

Joe moves slowly back toward his chair, a nasty little smile on his lips. “She could be sleeping with your best friend. Or any of a hundred other guys.”

An invisible weight presses down on my shoulders.
It's all about stripping you bare, leaving you defenseless and powerless.

“You're a frickin' fool if you think she's waiting for you,” adds David Zitface.

“Definitely,” Unibrow Robert agrees.

“And the longer you're gone, the more unlikely it is that she'll still be waiting when you come home,” says Joe.

I nod. These thoughts have crossed my mind.

“So doesn't it feel pretty stupid that she's the reason you're here?” Joe asks.

But she's not the reason. My parents are.

“Well?” Joe wants a response.

“I guess, sir.”

“You
guess?
You better do more than guess. You better agree. Your parents sent you here because they know what's best for you. When are you going to figure that out?”

It's pointless to answer.

No sign of Pauly. He's either in TI or the infirmary. I find another note from Sarah:

It must be hard not knowing.

What's hard is knowing that if it weren't
for my parents, we'd still be together.

Doesn't it wake sense to think about
what Pauly said?

I don't see how it's possible. Escape from Lake Harmony?
Go to Canada? Then what? Forget it. There's got to be a better way out of this place.

Everyone is moody here. Students are happy when they earn points or rise to the next level. Losing points or getting kicked down a level is a descent into gloom. Sarah is moodier than most, with higher highs and lower lows. But ever since she chopped off her hair and slashed herself, there have been fewer highs, and the lows seem deeper and darker. The zombies like Ron and Jon walk around in a fog, but you sense they have hope. Somewhere in their rewired skulls they know they're getting out of here soon. But there are days now when Sarah subsists under a cloud of doom and hopelessness. Like Pauly's, her skin is pasty, and she's getting thinner. The bandages are off her arms, the skin streaked with long, thin, pink scars and dotted with yellowish-black bruises.

“Finish your food,” her “mother” orders at lunch. The sloppy joe on Sarah's plate lies untouched.

“Put me up against a wall and shoot me,” Sarah mutters, chin propped in her hand as if she doesn't have the will to hold her head up.

If any other student were that impudent, he or she would be sent to TI immediately. But they've apparently decided to handle Sarah differently.

“You won't leave until you eat at least half of it,” her “mother” says.

“See you in the morning,” Sarah replies.

Why don't they send you to TI?

I've been there too many times.
They know it won't work.

Don't your parents wonder why it's taking so long?

They don't want we back until I'am fixed.

“You've been here since you were fourteen,” Joe tells Sarah in Circle. “In a year and a half you'll be eighteen, and you'll be able to walk out no matter what your parents say. But by then you'll have been here for four years. Almost a quarter of your life wasted.”

“So you think Lake Harmony's a waste?” Sarah replies smartly. Today she's in one of her rare spunky moods. But even when she's feeling good, it's obvious she no longer cares what they do to her.

Joe's nostrils flare for an instant. He's not used to such insolence. “It's not a waste for anyone else, but it is for you.”

Sarah shrugs as if she doesn't care. Her skin is so pale, it's almost translucent, and her arms are bony. She reminds me of a story I once heard about a kid who held his breath until he fainted. Sarah will not give in to them, but that doesn't mean she won't break.

“You're a selfish, good-for-nothing, pathetic loser.” We're in Circle, and Joe is ripping into a new girl named Megan. It's August, and I've been here for four months. Megan is solidly built and stocky with close-cropped
blond hair and a permanent frown. Her ears, eyebrows, and lips have the telltale pinholes of piercings, and a black barbed-wire tattoo encircles her neck.

“You're so damn self-centered, you couldn't see how you were destroying your family with your drugs and lying and stealing,” Joe says.

Pauly's rash has flared up again, and his neck and hands are covered with angry reddish splotches. By the yearning way he looks at me, I can tell that he wants to talk.

“Your mother has a full-time job and three young kids to take care of.” Joe continues his tongue-lashing of Megan. “Instead of helping, you gave her every bit of grief you could. And why? Because your dad ran off with another woman?”

Maybe because she's a girl, no one is prepared when Megan rockets out of her chair and drives her head and shoulders into Joe's stomach like a linebacker. Joe gets slammed backward, and we hear the gruesome
thunk
as his head smacks against the wall. For an instant there's silence, as Joe collapses in an unconscious heap on the floor. No one can believe what just happened. Even Megan looks stunned at what she's done. Then she bolts out the door.

Alarms start to blare in the hall. Ron, who has recently been elevated to Level Six, races out to find help. Adam saunters to the front of the room and looks down at Joe, who is sprawled on the floor, unconscious, his arms and legs twisted in odd directions. Next Adam glances out into the hall, then motions to David Zitface and Unibrow Robert. The three of them slip out and
vanish. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It's Pauly. He motions me toward the back of the room where Sarah is sitting.

I hesitate. This whole situation feels unreal. Joe out cold on the floor while the kids sit in their chairs, uncertain of what to do. There's the impulse to go get help, but why? Joe has caused me nothing but pain and anguish.

“Come on,” Pauly hisses urgently, and tugs at my arm.

I follow him, and we turn our chairs into a small huddle so the other kids can't hear us under the jangling alarms. They sit in their seats watching us and waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

“It's gotta be soon,” Pauly says in a hushed, rushed whisper. There's no way to know how much time we'll have before Joe wakes up or help comes. Sarah looks at me with dull, pleading eyes. Over the past few weeks it's seemed as if the life has slowly been drained out of them.

“The days are getting shorter,” Pauly says. “In another couple of months it'll be too cold to go. Then we'll be stuck here all winter.”

He and Sarah keep shooting me sideways glances, but I don't want to be in the position of saying yes or no.

“Maybe you should wait till spring,” I suggest.

Sarah shakes her head slowly. “Mud season.” Her voice sounds defeated, as if she senses my reluctance. “Cold, wet, and muddy.” She knows, of course, because she's already been here for two springs.

Shouts and slapping footsteps come from the hall.
The alarm continues to clang. I glance at the front of the room, where Joe is still sprawled like a broken doll. It goes against my nature to sit there and do nothing, but I have to remind myself that there is nothing natural about being imprisoned at Lake Harmony.

“Sarah and I aren't going to make it through another winter,” Pauly whispers.

Do they want me because they need someone strong and they're gambling that I'll be trustworthy?

I have to be honest with them. “I don't know.”

Both Pauly and Sarah drop their heads in disappointment. The door opens and the troll rushes in, followed by Adam and his posse, who obviously think they're scoring major brownie points by coming to Joe's rescue. The troll slides his hands under Joe's armpits and drags him out of the room. Outside there are shouts and the sounds of feet slapping and a scuffle. Adam's eyes briefly go to Pauly, Sarah, and me; then he and his boys head back out to see what's going on.

“We're gonna start a fire,” Pauly whispers desperately, as if to convince me that he has a plan.

I give him a dubious look.

“I'm serious,” he insists.

“You mean, like in a wastepaper basket?” I ask.

“No, a
real
fire,” Pauly says. “Sarah and I have been collecting stuff. We've got matches, a couple of bottles of nail-polish remover, some spray paint, and a bottle of alcohol from the infirmary. The rags won't be a problem. Everyone will have to evacuate. The fire department will have to come. In the confusion we sneak out.”

“You set a real fire, and someone could die,” I tell him.

“Another winter here and I'm dead anyway,” Pauly says. He means it. Sarah nods in agreement.

Mr. Sparks enters the room. His clothes are askew, and he looks flustered as he tucks in his shirt. There's a long, reddish scratch on his arm and a smaller one under his left eye. “Everyone up. Back to quarters until further notice.”

A female chaperone takes Sarah and the other girls back to the female wing. Mr. Sparks marches us males toward our dorm. We turn a corner, and lying on the floor is something that looks like a giant brown caterpillar with silver stripes. It's Megan, wrapped in a blanket that's been duct-taped closed like a full-body straight jacket. Duct tape covers her mouth as well. Her eyes are swollen shut, and her face is streaked with drying blood.

TWELVE

“You cannot initiate a visit to the infirmary.”

It's a desperate plan. A thousand things could go wrong. I know they want and need me to join in, but I can't see taking that risk. The odds are way against them, but I'm worried just the same that they'll try it without me.

I leave Sarah a note:

Do you really think pauly's joke is funny?

At the next meal she leaves her answer:

I'am, not sure I care.

She's so up and down. But in a way the answer is reassuring. At least she's not gung ho to torch the place.

Two days later she leaves another note:

3 PM-Infirunary

Around two forty-five I'm in my carrel, studying chemistry on the computer, which makes no sense considering there are no labs for experiments. I prop my elbows on the desk, press my fingers against my temples, and close my eyes.

“What's up, Garrett?” Mr. Sparks comes over.

“Headache, sir.”

He studies me. Kids are always making up excuses to go to the infirmary. Some want to get out of whatever job they're doing. Some are tired and want to rest. Some are just so desperate for a pill they'll settle for Tylenol. There have been times when I could have gone, like when I had that nosebleed with Joe, but I've purposefully resisted. I'm not even sure I knew why. It's almost as if instinctually I understood that I had to save them for when I really needed them.

“What do you want to do?” Mr. Sparks asks.

“Nothing, sir. It'll go away.”

He accepts that answer and goes back to his chair. I pretend to look at the computer screen. Five minutes pass. Mr. Sparks returns. “You haven't touched the keyboard.”

I fake a wince. “Give me a minute, sir. I'll get going.”

“Yeah, right,” Mr. Sparks says. “Ron, take Garrett to the infirmary.”

Level Six automaton Ron pops out of his carrel
like a jack-in-the-box and accompanies me out of the room. I can't help thinking back to the night Harry and Rebecca first drove me here, and the way Harry lectured Rebecca when he thought I was trying to manipulate her. I may not have known much about manipulation then, but I've learned plenty about it since.

Out in the yard we cross the grass toward the infirmary. The breeze is dry and fresh, and it feels like fall is coming. A few leaves have begun to turn yellow. The Faith family of females is lined up in the yard doing jumping jacks, led by their “mother,” who calls them sluts and whores. I can't believe I've been here for almost five months. It's like something out of Kafka. Instead of waking up as a giant cockroach, I've woken up in a penal colony.

The infirmary reminds me of the nurse's office at my old school, except that here the odor of stale cigarette smoke hangs in the air. There's a cot. A desk where the nurse sits. A curtain someone can get undressed behind. Oddly, an old metal safe. Sarah is lying on the cot. I frown at her. She mouths the word “cramps.”

BOOK: Boot Camp
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