Authors: Kels Barnholdt
BEFORE THE STORM
(Against All Odds, Book Two)
Copyright 2013, Kels Barnholdt
My obsession with my stepbrother is unhealthy, my obsession with my stepbrother is unhealthy, my obsession with my stepbrother in unhealthy. I repeat these words over and over to myself in my mind as I pick up my shovel and slam it into the dirt. The tip of it cracks under my pressure and the spirit leader standing a few feet away raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t say anything. I reach down and pick up a tiny green plant next to me and place it in the dirt, carefully using my fingers in just the right places to make sure it’s firm and secure.
I feel the leader’s eyes on me again, but force myself not to make eye contact with him. I then start to repeat the words over and over again to myself. My obsession with my stepbrother is unhealthy, my obsession with my stepbrother is unhealthy.
I force my shoulders to relax as I say it, but my body is still tense. And so is my heart. As of today it’s been ninety days in this prison, and I still feel like my thoughts aren’t really my own.
It’s like the authority figures here are supernatural and can somehow read your mind. Like they somehow know if you’re secretly fantasizing about your absolutely perfect stepbrother, which I’ve been known to do on a regular basis. I try to control my thoughts when I’m around them, mostly because I’m scared, but also because I’m extremely fucked up in the head. I thought I was living in a prison at home, but this place makes my huge house seem like a snow-covered castle fit for a princess.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and jump up from the ground immediately, turning front and center and forcing my back to stick up straight. I expect to come face-to-face with Troy, the spirit leader who’s currently supervising our emotional release into nature, but instead I’m greeted with a cocky grin.
“Eric,” I reply, swatting his arm playfully, “you scared me.”
He grins and pushes his floppy blonde hair out of his face to reveal his sparkling blue eyes. “Why are you so on edge Miss Victoria? Is today an important day or something?”
I try to shoot him a smile, but he must see through it because his tone suddenly softens. “You okay?” he asks.
Eric is the first friend I made when I came here. At first I was completely and totally against it, totally against any type of friendship or contact with anyone. I didn’t believe I belonged here, even a little bit, and I had no interest in becoming friends with a bunch of crazy people. Something about Eric is different though. He manages to break down my walls as much as someone can in a place like this. After all, I’ve been sent here even though I’m completely sane. Clearly, it’s my father and stepmother who are the crazy ones. I’m sure this could happen to anyone.
Eric definitely seems normal. He’s a little high-strung at times, but definitely normal. I look back down at the dirt and start tracing my name with the tip of my shoe.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I say quietly.
Eric looks casually over at Troy, but he’s distracted with some girl on the other side of the field who’s going on about how she doesn’t feel like gardening is going to help her release her spiritual tension. Clearly she must be new, otherwise she would know better.
Eric places one hand gently over mine. “No, Victoria, you can do this. Trust me.
You’re getting out of here today.”
His words bring me so much hope that I feel like my heart could take off and fly away from me on its own. I’ve been here before though. First at thirty days, and then again at sixty. Both times my therapists and counselors all agreed that I wasn’t ready to try to make it back home yet. I wasn’t ready to fight this on my own. And now, at ninety days, I’m getting another chance, another try. The thought of failing yet again is almost too much for my soul to handle. Another thirty days in this place might destroy me once and for all.
“Hey,” Eric says as he moves his toned body closer to me, shielding my face from anyone who could be passing, “you can’t let anyone see you like this. Not today, okay?
You need to give off the impression that you’re calm and collected. You need to act as if another day here isn’t hell, but something that’s making you grow.”
I process his words and then force my heart to slow to a normal beat. I know that he’s right. Eric’s really smart and really good about reading people, especially in this place. He would have been out of here a long time ago, except for the fact that he doesn’t want to get out. The idea is completely insane to me, but he says being in here is better than being with his stepfather. A part of me feels the same way. But still, it’s hard to imagine a life so bad that you would rather be stuck in a place like this than in your own home.
“I know,” I say pushing any emotion out of my voice, “I can do this.”
“No, it’s not that you can. It’s that you have to. Remember what I told you, okay?
This place has changed you. You were using your unhealthy attachment to your stepbrother as an outlet for unsolved emotions.” I nod along with him. “And?” he prompts.
“And…” I scratch my already throbbing brain, “and...”
“And you want to continue therapy when you get back at an outreach program.”
Eric half smiles at me. “You’ll be fine. I mean it’s not like it’s all bullshit. Part of you is starting to let go of the whole Nathan situation, right?”
But before I have a chance to answer he gives my shoulder a squeeze and is already off walking across the field without another word.
“Right,” I call out casually to his back.
Inside I feel my heart start to beat rapidly again. Because in the deepest parts of my soul I know the truth. I know that I’m nowhere near over Nathan. That my dreams are filled with him at night and my thoughts are filled with him during the day. And the truth is, the real truth is, I can’t imagine a time when it will ever be any different.
I literally told my mom everything. No really. There was nothing she didn’t know about me. I never understood when I heard girls in school complaining about how their moms were too involved in their lives. Or how they had like no privacy, since their moms were always poking around in their business. My mom was my best friend. Sometimes, when I was feeling really misunderstood, I even felt like she was my only friend.
My childhood felt like something out of a television commercial to me.
Something I felt like every child should have, and something that I assumed every child did have. It was all I had ever known. My mother told me when I was little that she had dreamed of having a daughter ever since she was young. She had dreamed about creating a life that would carry on a piece of her after she was gone. It had never occurred to me at the time that that day could be sooner rather than later.
My mother’s death was like a slap in the face to my perfect family life. It threw everything I had ever known completely and totally out of whack, especially emotionally.
I felt like I had left my body. It was like I was there, but I wasn’t really there. I was trapped inside this person that I didn’t know anymore, going through the everyday motions of what I thought I was supposed to do. I missed her completely and purely after she died. I felt like my whole world fell apart, and any feeling of responsibility I had slowly started to fade. I was numb all over and I grew comfortable with this feeling. I depended on it.
To this day, the night my mom died is stuck like glue in my mind. She absolutely loved being a social worker. She loved helping children who never had what I did. I remember not understanding why she would come home so upset some nights. The idea of any child not being as happy as I was with her was foreign to me. Coming home late was a common occurrence with her, and one I didn’t think twice about.
One night that all changed though. The storm had been advertised all morning, but that didn’t stop my mom from staying out late to work on a case she was attached to.
By the time she left her office the snow and sleet had made the roads so bad that it was hard to tell one road from another. The crash was horrifying to hear about, to say the least. The police said she died on impact and didn’t suffer. Thank the Lord for small victories.
I was never as close with my dad as I was with my mom. But still, I always felt like we had a connection strong enough that I never questioned his love for me. At first, I assumed I was the problem. Losing my mom had made me not want to talk or deal with anything. But as time went on, I realized that my dad wasn’t exactly concerned with my well-being. I wasn’t his daughter. I was just another thing in his world. My mother wasn’t spoken of, and either was our life with her. Our lives faded into different chapters. I’d see him for a brief time in the morning, go to school, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to come home from the office late at night after I was already in my room.
I slipped into a shell, a safe zone. One that consisted of nothing but my best friend Angelina, writing for my school paper, drinking coffee, and not getting enough sleep.
Sure, this made me not feel much for anything or anyone, but at least it was safe. At least it was comfortable.
All that changed, however, when my dad started dating Missy. Missy had a perfect body, amazing hair, and a face that made her look like a Barbie doll. My dad fell hard for Missy, and fast. Before I knew it he was asking her to marry him and she was moving in to take over our house, and our lives. And she wasn’t alone. She was bringing along a stepbrother I had never met. (Well, except for one semi stalkerish moment when I went to his basketball games to see what he was like. But I figure that’s totally normal, la la la. )
Nathan was full of himself. He was brilliant, annoying, and absolutely drop-dead, totally and completely sexy. My hatred toward him was clear to everyone but him. He somehow seemed to enjoy it. And soon enough I couldn’t fight my need for him. It started off as almost a game, a way for me to feel confident, a way for me to feel comfortable around guys in my own skin. It wasn’t long though before our sexual attraction became an emotional attraction.
The thought of him with another girl made me crazy. I tried to fight it, and then he tried to fight it, and then the whole thing was just this big mess with everyone fighting off their emotions, until we couldn’t anymore that is. There was just no way it was possible. I had fallen for my stepbrother, and I had fallen hard. But the craziest part about it was that he had actually fallen for me too.
In the back of my mind I always knew it would be hard on us. That it would be a challenge to make it work. But it never felt wrong. It actually felt really right. We were together, but in secret. We were so wrapped up in our own world that I guess we weren’t being as careful as we thought we were, because before I knew it I was being woken up in the middle of the night and dragged out of my bed. The next thing I remember is waking up in a white-walled room that had nothing in it but a sink and a twin bed.
All of the details are still unknown to me. There’s been no information given to me about how Nathan is doing now. My father has never visited me here, and neither has Missy. But I have talked to them on the phone a handful of times. And when I do, at any mention of Nathan they always tell me they have to go and that they’re happy I’m getting the help I need. It’s pretty clear they think I seduced Nathan and got into his head, ruining his life.
I haven’t heard from Nathan or Angelina since I’ve been here. All of our out-going calls are monitored, so I can never call them. I did write letters at first, but I never heard back, so I stopped for the last month. Eric suggested not sending letters would help convince my counselors that I was moving forward, and the thought of being with Nathan was no longer an option for me.
However, Nathan is just the beginning of my issues. My counselors know I don’t sleep, they know I have only one friend, and they know I don’t talk about my mother.
Apparently my father picks up on everything that’s happening, but chooses not to address any of it. Until now, that is.
Getting dragged out of my bed and shipped away to some boot camp for months made me think I had a right to sue. I mean someone can’t just drag a child out of their bed in the middle of the night without so much as a reason, and then check them into somewhere with mental people, right? It has to be against about a million laws, right?
Apparently, when you’re under the age of eighteen parents can legally do whatever they think is in the best interest of their child. And the truth is, maybe I was a little messed up. But I mean, what kid wouldn’t be? My mom had just died and my dad was like a shut-off cardboard doll. Nathan made me feel alive again. He made me feel somewhat like myself again. Like the person I used to be back when I still had my mom.
I don’t regret it. I don’t regret him. And I never will.
I’m sitting on the bed in my room, slowly tracing my fingers over the pages of the old spiral notebook that has been my escape for the past three months. My doctor suggested I start keeping a journal a couple of weeks into my therapy. He says it’s a good outlet for my emotions. And he’s right. But I don’t trust anyone in here. So I have two journals. A red one and a blue one. The red one is a decoy journal. In this one I write about things I know my doctors will like to read. How I realize how unhealthy I am, how I was using Nathan as a way to cope with my mother’s death, and a bunch of other psychobabble bullshit they get off on reading.
The blue one though, this is my real journal. My real thoughts. It talks about how lonely I am, how I feel like no one here understands me, except for maybe Eric. I long for Nathan, and wonder if he thinks about me as much as I think about him. I talk about Angelina in the blue journal too. About how I never realized how valuable a real best friend she is until I came here and now don’t have her to talk to everyday.
The hiding place for this journal is in one of the ceiling tiles above my bed, where I carefully put it back every time I’m done getting out how I truly feel onto paper. Really, my writing is the only thing I have here besides Eric. And he really doesn’t know the truth, only the semi-truth. But still, I’m glad I have a friend who can at least talk back to me.
I jump at the sound of the door opening and quickly shove the journal under my pillow. Any authority figure finding this could ruin everything, especially today.
My roommate Stephanie rolls her tiny owl eyes at me, “Oh please, I don’t care about your stupid secret diary.”
Stephanie hates me. She has since the first day I walked into our room.
“So much for having a single,” she said, looking me up and down and scowling when I arrived.
She’s a year younger than me but intimidates me more than anyone else I’ve ever met in my life. I heard from some of the other kids here that she tried to stab her sister in the throat with a pencil while she slept. Now to most people this may seem terrifying, and it totally is. Except in this case, it actually works to my advantage that I can’t sleep through the night. I’d rather be exhausted all day than be bludgeoned to death in my sleep.
I know I say this like it’s a joke, and maybe some might even laugh along with it, but it really isn’t funny. And if you interacted with Stephanie everyday, like I do, you would know just exactly how unfunny it is. She’s one of the few teens in this place who I feel actually deserves to be here. But here’s the thing, you don’t exactly get to gather that much information about what landed each person in here. I mean, you kind of get an idea in the group therapy session we have each week, but that’s more to talk about each one of our overall issues, not exactly what it is that got us shipped off to the loony bin in the first place. That kind of talk is saved for our private therapy sessions.
For example, in group therapy everyone knows I’m having trouble dealing with my mother’s death, and that’s why I choose to act out. What they don’t know is that I acted out in the way of seducing my stepbrother and pursuing a very dangerous and addicting sexual relationship with him. Those steamy details go directly to my private therapist.
So, I kind of have a general idea of why everyone’s in here. And for the most part it’s pretty minor stuff like shoplifting, refusing to go to school, and casual marijuana use.
Or, maybe even being caught in a sexual situation at too young an age, which I clearly know nothing about, except for that I do, but whatever.
Anyway, back to Stephanie. I don’t get the feeling that she’s just a kid who chose to piss her parents off one to many times. I get the feeling that maybe she’s actually crazy. And when I say crazy, I mean completely and totally out of her mind. She gets this look in her eyes sometimes like she’s thinking about ways in which she wants to kill us all, slowly and painfully. After I’d been here for about a month I even went as far as to ask to switch rooms. Apparently, they didn’t take my request very seriously, because nothing ever came of it.
“What a waste of time anyway,” she says, pulling me back to reality. “Sitting around writing in a fake journal just so they won’t find your real one,” she rolls her eyes like I’m too pathetic for her to even bother with.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, not meeting her eyes. This excuse sounds weak, even to me.
She flips her jet-black hair over and gathers it into a sloppy ponytail. Her features are pale and she looks so frail that you think her bones will snap at any moment. But that’s the thing about insane people; you can never underestimate them no matter what their size is.
“Anyway,” she says, flinging her tiny body onto her bed, “do you think you’ll actually make it out of here this time?”
She asks this like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but there’s a catch in her voice that I don’t like. One that tells me she’s asking for a reason other than curiosity or boredom.
“Um,” I say, trying not stutter as I answer. Like I said, the girl makes me nervous. “I hope. I mean I’ve really developed a lot since I’ve been here. I really realize how messed up I was, and how I was creating an outlet that wasn’t sane or healthy to deal with the situation that I was going through at the time.”
Stephanie looks at me like I have three heads. “No,” she says, clearly disgusted with my answer. “I didn’t ask you what rehearsed answer you and your boyfriend came up with. I asked if you thought you could actually pull it off. I mean you’re kind of flaky.”
Flaky? Who is she calling flaky? I’m the exact opposite of flaky. I am very not flaky. In fact, when I think of people who are unflaky I think of myself right away.
“First of all, he is not my boyfriend. Second of all, I’m not flaky.” I try to say this with determination in my voice as if to show her I mean business, but she just continues to look at me like I’m a joke. And since I’m very intimated by her it comes out more like a mouse begging quickly for his life right before a lion picks him up and swallows him in one bite for a pre-morning snack.
“You are definitely flaky. I mean if you’re so unflaky why haven’t you been able to get out of here the last two times you tried?”
I want to point out that she’s been here a lot longer than me and it doesn’t seem like she’s going anywhere anytime soon. In addition to the fact that what she’s saying doesn’t really make that much sense. I mean, does she even know what flaky means?
Instead, I just look away and pretend that I have something caught in my fingernail.
“I hope you do,” she says. “Get out, I mean,”
She looks at the ceiling and I think I catch a hint of sadness in her voice, but then a second later the same cold expression is plastered back on her face and I’m sure I must be imagining it. Still, it’s the nicest thing she’s said to me in ninety days and I feel like I should say something back, anything.
“Well, thanks. Maybe you’ll get out soon too.”
She laughs like this is the funniest thing she’s heard in months, which maybe it is.
I’m about to ask her why that’s so funny when there’s a knock on the door and we both freeze. Shit, are they doing checks already? I don’t have time to hide my journal back up in the ceiling.
But it’s only Eric. He pushes open the door and I relax, noticing Stephanie does too. What the hell does she have to be nervous about? Room checks are something they do every few hours at the wellness center. Someone comes around and makes sure you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be every hour. Whether it’s in your room, therapy, lunch, or some other activity, everything is strictly scheduled. And if you miss something you’re supposed to be doing at any given time you better be in your bed dying, otherwise you go straight to the pit.
The pit is a room about the size of a box where you’re locked up with no relationship with the outside world. It’s where you go for punishment. I was sent there once when I first arrived, and that was enough. Being alone in a tiny room with nothing but your thoughts to keep you company is enough to make you go absolutely insane.
The other thing about room checks is that they pick one at random to do a full sweep of. This means they completely and totally tear it apart, turning over every corner to make sure you aren’t hiding anything you aren’t supposed to have. Needless to say, at this time of the day I always feel like my heart is about to explode out of my chest.
I’ve considered stopping for a while, getting rid of the journal somehow and starting over. But writing is my only escape while I’m in here. It’s my only way to record what I’m going through here, and how horrible it really is. The only record of who I really am during this time, not the puppet they want me to be.
“It’s just me,” Eric says, seeing the terrified look on my face.
“Yeah,” Stephanie says, looking Eric up and down. “It’s just your boyfriend coming to make sure you have your story straight for the nine millionth time this week.”
Eric shoots her a crooked smile. “Now Stephanie, you swore you wouldn’t mention me and Victoria’s secret love affair.” He winks at me quickly and I feel myself start to blush. If falling for Nathan was supposed to get me used to positive male attention, it hasn’t worked all that well.
Stephanie scowls, pounces up from her bed, and heads to the door. “Whatever.”
This is Stephanie’s usual behavior around Eric. I think it’s because he doesn’t let her get to him, and Stephanie gets off on getting to people.
“She’s harmless,” he tells me, reading my mind.
I don’t answer right away. Instead I start fiddling with the color of my white shirt.
“I’m getting nervous,” I tell him.
“I know,” he says, grabbing my hand and pulling me down on the bed with him.
“But you need to breathe, pull yourself together. They can sense if anything’s off. Just think you can do it and you will.”
I nod and smile. “Thanks for being my best friend. Ya know, in here.”
He pulls my head against his chest and holds me tightly. “I’m going to miss you Victoria. Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
I bury my head in his shirt and inside I pray that he’s right.
Our withdrawal briefing room is the only one with color in the whole building.
The chairs in here are big and black, made of leather, and much too comfortable for my own good. If I wasn’t so on edge I might even be able to lay back and fall asleep instantly. It’s almost as if they make the possibility of us getting back out into the real world into a celebration. It’s kind of nice, I guess, if you’re really leaving. But the two times I’ve sat in this room before have left me more depressed than ever.
• * *
The Head of Admissions, my therapist, my group therapist, and the Vice President of Operations sit at the table in the front of the room with various files and notes spread out in front of them. The whole meeting is pretty much bullshit since I’m sure they know before they step foot into the room if you’re going home or not, regardless of anything you could possibly have to say. Still, I force my heart to slow to a normal pace and try to keep a calm expression on my face. I don’t need to give them any more reason to think I’m desperate to get the fuck out of here.
They’re all dressed up, as they always are. Their expensive suits and dresses remind me that there was a time when I actually cared about how I looked, a time when I actually had options about what I wore. This also makes me think about all the other options I used to have, like what I wanted to watch on T.V., what time I wanted to watch it, and what I wanted or didn’t want to eat. It’s crazy how you don’t realize how much the simplest things mean to you until they’re taken away.
My therapist shows me a half smile from across the room and I force myself to smile back. She’s an older woman with a kind smile and has a habit of looking only for the best in a situation. I’ve never minded her, Dr. Morgan. She’s always gone out of her way to make me feel like there’s nothing wrong with me. One time she even snuck me in a Snickers bar after I told her in a session that they were my favorite.
Chocolate, or candy in general, is off limits in the wellness center. It’s kind of sad, I thought to myself. In another time and place I might actually get along with her.
The Director of Admission and Vice President of Operation are both men whom I know very little about. They aren’t around much, and when they are, everyone avoids them. Any type of contact with them is frowned upon. It seems like even the staff stays clear of them. The other two times I’ve come into contact with them has been in this room. Neither of them speaks much except to give the final decision.
The only thing I’m worried about, or at least a little concerned about, is that the group counselor hates me. Okay, maybe hate is taking it a little bit far, but she surely isn’t a fan of mine. She always thinks I’m lying, and although she doesn’t come right out and say it, she hints at it. For example, she responds to what I say by saying things like, “Are you sure that’s how you really feel Victoria?” Or, “That sounds like a staged response Victoria. Why don’t you think of something you don’t think people want to hear and we’ll come back to you later in the hour.” I might be able to ignore this except for the fact that in the three months I’ve been in here I’ve never once heard her say anything like this to anyone else.
Also, she always insists that I say her name after everything I say. If I share something with the group she’ll say, “Don’t forget to address me as Mrs. Newington Victoria. It’s polite to call people by their last name. And we want to be polite, now don’t we?”
Again, she never says this to anyone else. The other thing about her is that she absolutely loves Stephanie. No really, no matter what Stephanie says she gets credit for having a breakthrough. Literally, she must have a breakthrough at least every week. It’s not that I’m jealous or anything, because if Stephanie really is having breakthroughs I’d be very happy for her. I would tell her to go ahead and break away. But someone can’t have a breakthrough every week, especially when they don’t say anything, which Stephanie pretty much doesn’t.