Authors: Todd Strasser
Outside, a bird chirps, and even in this windowless room I sense that the sky has gone from black to gray. I yawn and stretch and more than anything want to lie down and sleep, but both men keep a steady eye on me, and I know what the answer will be if I ask.
How much longer?
While I don't know the answer to that particular question, I have a feeling I do know the answer to another:
Why am I here?
Because my parents are trying to scare me into “behaving.” I'll admit that this time I'm impressed by the lengths to which they've gone. Arranging for me to be taken against my
will is pretty extreme. Back in the city Sabrina will be waking up soon. She'll wait for me to call. But that call won't come, and she won't know why, and she won't be able to find out unless she calls my parents, who have consistently refused to meet or speak to her. It's hard to imagine they will now.
From outside come the sounds of early-morning stirring. The slam of a car door. Footsteps in the hallway. The door opens. A thin man with slicked-back black hair and a thin black mustache enters carrying a brown paper shopping bag. He's wearing a white polo shirt and khaki slacks, and he stares at me with puffy, reddened eyes. His nose twitches every time he sniffs.
“Strip,” he orders.
The word is so unexpected that I assume I heard him incorrectly. “Sorry?”
“You heard me,” he barks.
I heard him, but
â¦ The men in the chairs sit up, more alert.
“Who are you?” I ask.
The thin man narrows his swollen eyes. “That's the last time you will speak unless spoken to. You will remain silent and do what you're told when you're told.” He checks his watch. “You have exactly twenty seconds to get out of those clothes, or you'll stand here until this time tomorrow when we'll try again.”
I want to tell him to go to hell, but I have a feeling that's exactly what he expects. I may not know where I am, but I do know these three men have the advantage. This may be new to me, but it isn't to them. They've
been through this a hundred, maybe even a thousand, times before.
I kick off my shoes, then start to unbutton my shirt. The thin man glances at his watch impatiently, but whether from fatigue or disbelief or anger I can't get my fingers to work more quickly.
“Faster!” the thin man barks.
Every fiber in my body yearns to refuse. But doing so will only delay what I really need to accomplish, which is to get out of here and back to Sabrina. So I finish unbuttoning my shirt and yank it off, then open my belt buckle and start to pull down my pants. The men in the chairs glance at each other and the tall one raises his eyebrow, as if they're surprised I've cooperated so quickly.
Meanwhile the thin man sniffs and consults his watch. I push my pants down over my ankles and step out of them. The thin man's eyes dart at my feet, then back to his watch, so I quickly strip off my socks. Now I'm only in my boxers.
He nods. “Those too.”
Anger boils up inside me and I want to shout,
Why? Who the hell do you think you are?
But I already know the answer. I've read about places like this, and I've seen the TV specials. I had hours in the airport and on the plane and in the car to figure it out. I'm in a boot camp, and its purpose is to break me down and “train” me, like a cowboy breaks a bronco or a dog is taught in obedience school.
The thin man glances at his watch again. “See you tomorrow.” He turns toward the door.
“Wait.” I push the boxer shorts down, then step out of them.
The thin man stops. I'm standing naked and defenseless, and these three men are staring at me. It's not cold in the room, but shivers race over my skin like chilling winds.
“Turn around and bend over.”
Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse â¦
The troll smiles. He's enjoying this. Meanwhile, my legs won't move.
“You want to spend the next twenty-four hours standing in that spot?” the thin man asks.
I turn and bend. Strangely, this isn't as difficult as I might have thought. Now that they've made me strip, what difference does it make?
I tell myself. For Sabrina.
The sooner I'm out of here, the sooner we'll be together again.
When he's done searching, the thin man puts my clothes in the paper bag. In their place he leaves a green polo shirt, blue jeans, and green flip-flops. He departs while I'm putting on my new uniform. Once dressed, I assume the two men are going to take me somewhere else. But they remain seated.
“Try to get some sleep,” the tall one says.
“I have to stay here?” I ask.
“No talking!” the troll barks.
I'm not about to argue with a chance to rest, so I lie on my back on the bare mattress, stare at the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and wonder how long my parents had been planning this.
“You will not stand, sit, or talk without permission.”
A hand shakes my shoulder. “Wake up.”
I open my eyes. The ceiling light is still on. A man in a black polo shirt whom I haven't seen before hovers over me.
“Time to go,” he says.
I don't know what time it is, only that heavy tentacles of sleep are pulling my head back down to the pillow. I close my eyes but instantly feel the hand on my shoulder again, rougher this time. “Get up.”
Groggily I try to bat the hand away, but feel him grab my wrist and expertly twist. The next thing I know, I'm rolled onto my side on the bed. His grip tightens
and pain shoots through my shoulder, as if he's trying to pry my arm out of joint.
I croak through clenched teeth. “Okay, okay.”
He backs off slightly and the pain eases. In a practiced tone he recites: “Your parents have signed and notarized a consent form allowing Lake Harmony to use restraint whenever necessary. The type and degree of restraint administered shall be at the discretion of the staff. Lake Harmony and its employees will not be held liable for any injury sustained by you during the administration of restraint as it is understood that such injury is the result of willful disobedience on your part. Now get up.”
In my father's world they call this the CYA (“cover your a**”) statement. As I slowly get up from the bed, the man keeps my arm behind my back. Part of me wants to resist, but another part of me knows there is no move I can make that he has not seen before.
“If I let go of your arm, will you do what you're told?” he asks.
“Yes â¦ sir?”
He lets go and opens the door. “You first.”
I step out into a hallway and then through a metal door to the outside. The day is bright and the sky blue, the early morning air moist and fragrant. Some of the trees are covered with reddish buds and the beginnings of small bright-green leaves. A few have small white or pink flowers. We walk across a grassy yard. Fifty yards away, a woman wearing a white polo shirt marches a
single-file line of girls between buildings. The girls are dressed in red polo shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. They march with silent military precision, roughly three feet apart, eyes forward.
We go into an old brick building with round, castlelike turrets. Inside is a small lobby with two couches and a table with some flowers, magazines, and brochures about Lake Harmony, “a highly structured boarding school specializing in intensive behavior modification.” On the walls are framed “class pictures”: smiling young people in rows, just like you might find in a small private school. At the far end of the room is a dark wooden door. The white letters on the rectangular black plaque read:
“Go on,” the black polo shirt orders.
I cross the lobby to the door, then stop and look back at him.
I do as I'm told, and a gruff voice from inside says, “Come in.”
I push open the door. A stocky man sits at a desk, staring down at some papers through thin half-glasses, forehead wrinkled as if the act of reading takes intense concentration. His gray hair is cut short, and his nose is crooked, probably broken a long time ago. A small gold hoop pierces one earlobe. The rolled-up sleeves of his shirt reveal muscular forearms, and his hands are rough and faintly scarred, his fingers stubby and thick. He looks like someone who is used to working with those hands rather than sitting at a desk.
I wait while he reads. My head has begun to hurt.
Craving coffee, I glance around the office, hoping there might be a pot brewing in some corner, but there isn't. Instead there are dark-green file cabinets, some wooden chairs, a megaphone, and a wall map of the United States with different colored pins stuck into it.
Finally, he stacks the papers and places them in a folder. Looking at me for the first time, he holds the folder with both hands and wags it. “Kid hit his mother so hard, he broke her jaw.” He sighs as he says this. As if he's never heard of such a thing before. “Tell me, Garrett, you ever hit your mother?”
“No, sir,” he corrects, and gestures to a chair on the other side of the desk. “Sit down.”
I sit. His eyes are a washed-out gray, the color of hazy rain clouds. He makes a tent with his stubby fingers. “Welcome to Lake Harmony, Garrett. I'm Mr. Z, and I am the director of this facility. I assume by now you've figured out why you're here. Your parents are paying a substantial amount of money because they are seriously concerned about your welfare. They want you to return home as soon as possible. How long you stay is up to you. I've seen students graduate after six months. Others have taken three years or longer. The choice is yours.”
He opens a desk drawer, takes out a thick, stapled document, and hands it to me. “This is your bible. Read it carefully. Study it. When you feel you've learned it completely, you may request a test. Once you have passed the test, you will be ready to join your fellow students.”
He pauses and gazes steadily into my eyes. “Any questions?”
“Can I get a cup of coffee â¦ uh, sir?” I ask.
“You'll be forgoing all caffeinated drinks during your stay here,” Mr. Z informs me. Hearing those words hurts almost as much as my headache. “Any other questions?”
“Sir, is it possible that someone could be sent here for the wrong reason?” I ask.
Those gray eyes don't waver. Once again I have the feeling that this is a question he's heard a thousand times before. Mr. Z shakes his head. “Children are sent here by their parents, Garrett.”
“And â¦ parents are always right, sir?”
“That is the principle under which we operate. At least until a child reaches the age of emancipation,” Mr. Z replies.
“Sorry?” he snaps.
“Eighteen â¦ sir?”
“In most states.”
Another silence. I glance at the wall map. The densest collections of pins are near the large metropolitan areas on both coasts. Mr. Z knows what I'm looking at, but he makes no effort to explain its meaning. Instead, he asks, “Any other questions?”
“No â¦ sir.”
“Very good. You can go.”
Back outside, the man in the black polo shirt takes me to yet another building. This one has classrooms. Inside, students sit at carrels working silently at
computers. The walls of the carrels prevent them from seeing the other students. Men and women in black or white polo shirts sit at the backs of the rooms and watch.
I am taken to an empty classroom and shown to a carrel. “Study it,” the black shirt orders, nodding at the “bible” Mr. Z gave me. The introduction begins like this:
You are now a member of the Lake Harmony community. You will be released when you are judged to be respectful, polite, and obedient enough to return to your family. During your stay here you will have no communication with the outside world, except for letters to your parents. After six months your parents may visit you for a day if they choose.
Despite having had only a few hours' sleep, not to mention the thumping caffeine headache, I manage to quickly read through the sixty-one-page document. It lists the rules: no talking, no touching, no disrespectful looks, etc. It describes the six levels one must rise through in order to be considered a candidate for “graduation.” It explains the system of points one must earn to climb from one level to the next.
After about forty minutes I raise my hand.
“Bathroom?” the black shirt asks.
“I'm ready for the test, sir.”
Black shirt frowns. “In less than an hour? No way. No one's ready that fast. Read it again.”
I skim the bible again, then glance up. Black shirt doesn't look happy. “You're wasting my time,” he mumbles, placing some photocopied sheets on my desk. The sheets have been copied so many times, the black letters have blurred and run together. There are fifteen questions, with room for one- or two-sentence answers.
Why have you been sent to Lake Harmony?
What does manipulation mean?
What must you do to graduate?
It takes about twenty minutes to complete the test.
Black shirt gazes doubtfully when I motion that I'm finished, as if not only is it impossible to learn the whole bible as fast as I claim, but even more impossible to complete the test. The frown on his face only deepens when he reads my answers, pausing now and then to refer back to the bible to make sure they are correct.
He finishes marking the test and pauses, drumming his fingertips rhythmically against the table. He checks his watch, looks down at the test again, then goes to a phone on the wall and makes a call. After a while there's a knock, and another black shirt sticks his head into the room. The two black shirts whisper, then come to a decision.
With one in front of me and the other behind, I'm escorted back to the windowless room with the metal bed. The black shirts sit in the chairs, while I remain standing, waiting for the next order.
My parents have signed all the necessary legal documents â¦
I'm here for a minimum of six months â¦