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Authors: Todd Strasser

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BOOK: Boot Camp
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“Take a nap,” one black shirt tells me. “You must be tired.”

“Not really.” I should be tired, but I'm too wound up. And my head hurts too much.

“What?”

“Not really … sir.”

“Then sit down and shut up.”

This can't be real…

My parents say I began sounding out words in picture books around the age of two and a half. At four I scored off the charts on the Chester Scale, the entrance exam for the city's top private kindergartens. At age six I was figuring out square roots and adding radicals. For the first seven years of my life all I heard was how brilliant I was. Then, at the age of eight, I forged a letter from my mother excusing me from gym because of severe asthma. Sports were dumb, and I wasn't good at them. I even bought an inhaler at a drugstore and whipped it out whenever anything athletic was mentioned. The ruse lasted for nearly six months, until my second-grade teacher mentioned at a parent-teacher conference how badly she felt that I had to skip so many physical activities. From then on I was no longer brilliant. I was now too smart for my own good.

FOUR

“You will obey all orders immediately and without hesitation.”

“Hey, big guy.”

It's my second morning. I've been here for roughly thirty hours, and it's been one nonstop caffeine headache. I'm sitting at the end of a long table with my new “family.” Our family name is Dignity, and we are 20 males wearing identical forest-green polo shirts and blue jeans, our hair and fingernails closely clipped (long nails are considered a weapon).

Our name may be Dignity, but from the looks of these guys it might as well be Losers. Maybe it's the headache, but I swear I've never seen a sketchier bunch
of rejects. If it's too fat or too skinny, if it slouches or has bad zits or a permanently sour expression on its face, it's here. No one's allowed to speak to me, and frankly I'm more than okay with that. The less I have to do with this bunch, the better.

At other “family” tables, females wear jeans and red polo shirts. Lower-level males have had their hair shorn close to their skulls. The hair of lower-level females has been cut short. Only upper-level residents can grow their hair longer if they choose. Family “fathers” and “mothers” wear white polo shirts and khaki slacks. They patrol the tables, assisted by “chaperones” in black polo shirts and khakis.

Breakfast this morning consists of watery, lukewarm scrambled eggs, cold, soggy toast, and a powdered orange drink that makes Tang seem like champagne. The only eating implements allowed are white plastic spoons. Through speakers hanging from the ceiling a taped lecture thunders:
“Good posture is important because it helps your body function at top speed. It promotes movement efficiency and endurance and contributes to an overall feeling of wellness.”

The tape is so loud, it's painful. I suspect it has two purposes. The obvious one is to cajole residents to focus on self-improvement. The less obvious purpose is to make it difficult for us to communicate with each other. But the ridiculously loud volume also has the opposite effect, allowing students to communicate without being noticed.

“Hey you, big guy.”

The whispers come during the brief moments in
the tape when the reader pauses to catch his breath. The kid doing the whispering is sitting at the middle of our table. He's got short reddish hair and freckles that dot his face like a smallpox victim. His lips curl into a nasty smirk that reveals small, yellow, reptilian teeth, and his eyelids are pale pink like an albino's. Seated around him is his posse, guys who stare fiercely at me as if they mean to project a big attitude. But it's the red-haired kid who's making trouble.

“What's wrong, big guy, afraid to talk?”

He knows that I'm not allowed to speak without permission.

“Big guy, or big chicken?”

I was always big for my age. Now I'm just big, period. Six feet four, 230 pounds, and broad-shouldered, even if I am the opposite of athletic. It's genetics—just the way I was born. You would assume it's a bonus to be tall, and in some ways I guess you'd be right. But you'd also be surprised. Everyone assumes I'm a great basketball player, which I'm not. At least once a day I manage to bang my head in a low doorway. And sometimes I'm a target for smaller guys with Napoleon complexes—like this red-haired jerk—who think they have something to prove.

“Bawk, bawk, bawk.” The freckled kid makes chicken sounds. The guys around him grin.

Since I'm the new kid, my “father” is keeping an extra sharp eye on me. His name is Joe, and he is the thin, black-haired man who ordered me to strip in the windowless room when I first arrived. Joe's eyes are puffy and red from spring allergies, and his nose
twitches constantly. He seems convinced that we are always up to no good. Already this morning I had to do twenty push-ups (the last ten on my knees) for not tucking in my shirt properly, while Joe screamed that I was a lazy, good-for-nothing slob with low self-esteem and no self-respect. I wanted to ask why he thought that, since he didn't know me at all. Of course, being a Level One, I couldn't say anything.

The red-haired kid goes quiet when Joe cruises slowly past our table. Joe's body language says he thinks he may have heard something. I take another spoonful of cold scrambled eggs and stare straight ahead, chewing. According to the rules I must eat at least half of every meal. If I don't, whatever is left over will be served to me again at the next meal. No sooner does Joe pass than a small glob of eggs hits me on the side of the nose. Wiping it off, I slowly turn my gaze toward the red-haired kid, who bares his lizard teeth for an instant.

“What was that, Garrett Durrell?” Suddenly Joe is standing over me with his hands planted firmly on his hips. His voice is loud enough for the entire food hall to hear.

“Sorry?” I answer.

“Sorry, what?” His twitching nose reminds me of a rabbit.

“Uh … sorry … sir.”

“What are you so sorry about?” Joe's voice becomes shrill, like Hitler's when he was rallying the Nazis. I try not to stare at his nose. It takes concentration not to laugh.

“I… er … don't know … sir.”

Joe's face tightens like a fist. “You disrespecting me, punk? You don't know what?”

The food hall has gone still. Not a tap of a spoon or a slurp of juice. I keep my eyes aimed down at the table, but I know they're all watching me.

“I don't know, sir.”

“You don't know
what!”

Maybe it's the omnipresent headache, but I've lost track of what this is about. I stare down at the table and don't answer.

“Stand up!” Joe shouts.

I do as I'm told. My tired legs tremble and my sore knees ache when I put weight on them. Earlier this morning we had to run five miles in military-style leather boots through woods, across muddy streams, and up and down hills. We were not allowed to stop or walk. Those who grew too tired to run were forced to crawl on their hands and knees until they could run again. Standing now in the food hall, I glance out of the corner of my eye at a family of females at the next table. I know they're watching, but when I look, they avert their eyes. Except for one who sits apart from the others, her black hair pulled to the side and her blue eyes clear and unwavering. A square, handwritten cardboard sign hangs around her neck:

T
WO YEARS AND STILL PULLING THE SAME CRAP
.

Her eyes meet mine with a steady, knowing gaze.

“Stand straight!” Joe shouts.

I straighten up and look down into Joe's face. Our
eyes meet. His are small, beady, and hard. His face is red with fury, and his forehead is lined. I can't understand what he's so angry about.

“What's that look?” he demands sharply.

“Sorry, sir?”

“You disrespecting me, Garrett?”

“No, sir.”

Joe leans closer, his nose twitching rapidly. “You think you're smart, don't you?”

“No, sir.”

“The hell you don't. Memorizing the whole bible in forty minutes.”

Murmurs break out at the tables around us, only to be extinguished by harsh stares from “mothers” and “fathers.”

“You got some kind of photographic memory? Naw, you're too stupid-looking.” Joe grins as if he finds this amusing. “You just got lucky on the test, right?”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir, no, sir, yes, sir, no, sir. You think you can hide behind that ‘sir' crap like it's some kind of protective shield? Forget it, punk. Anyone can see what's really going on. You think we're stupid, right? Well, that crap doesn't cut it here, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”
Crap,
it appears, is a catchword for all undesirable behavior at Lake Harmony.

“Yeah, you … ah-choo!” Joe suddenly sneezes.

“Bless you, sir.”

Joe whips out a disgusting, yellowed handkerchief and blows his nose. “Damn allergies.” With watery, red-rimmed eyes he gives me a menacing look. “Did
you say ‘bless you'? What are you, my priest?”

I don't realize that he actually wants me to answer.

“Answer me, punk.”

“No, sir, I'm not your priest.”

“Is that the way people talk where you come from? Please, and thank you, and bless you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Everyone's all nice and civilized?”

“Only on the surface, sir.”

My “father” scowls slightly, as if not certain what to make of this answer. “What does that mean?”

“It means that where I come from people pretend to act nice and civilized, sir. But they'll stab you in the back just the same.”

Joe's eyebrows dip slightly. “So tell me something, Garrett Durrell—how in the world did you wind up here?”

“I… I don't know how to answer that, sir.”

“Why not? Everybody else in this room knows why they're here.” Joe turns to our table. “Jon, tell Garrett why you're here.”

“Yes, sir.” Jon, a thin blond kid with blinking eyes, pops out of his seat. He has a slight tremor, like a small animal perpetually in fear of larger prey. “I was disrespectful to my mom,” he says eagerly. “I sold drugs and stole bikes and skipped school.”

“Thank you, Jon.”

Jon sits obediently. Joe looks up at me. “Tell us why you're here, Garrett?”

“I suppose I was disrespectful, too … sir.”

“And
how
do you
suppose
you were disrespectful?”

“I didn't do what my parents wanted me to do, sir.”

“And what did they want you to do?”

My thoughts are racing like speed chess. What move can I make? What answer can I give? He can't really expect me to talk about this in front of all these people.

“I'll be glad to tell you in private, sir.”

Around the room murmurs sprout and vanish like puffs of smoke from firecrackers. Joe snorts with contempt. “I have news for you, Garrett. There is no ‘private' here. No one gets through this program with their pride intact, understand? Your pride goes with the rest of the crap. We tear you down, then build you back the way you should be. And we start with you telling
all
of us why you're here.”

“Sir, I'm sure that, given a little more time, I can find a way to explain it.”

Joe's face reddens, and he glares so fiercely, I can see the pulse in his forehead. I wish I knew what he's so pissed off about. “You don't get it, do you?” he snarls. “This is some kind of game with you. You think all you got to do is
pretend
to cooperate and you'll be out of here?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh
yes,
sir. I see it clear as day. Most definitely
yes,
sir.”

I stand straight and keep my eyes on his because that is what he ordered me to do. Joe stares back, and a slight, tight smile creeps onto his lips. “Oh, you're
good. Yeah, you really think you got this place wired, don't you?”

“No, sir.”

“Yes, sir!” Joe shouts, and spittle sprays my face. “Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

Joe presses his twitching nose closer. “Well, which is it, punk? Yes, sir, or no, sir?”

“I don't know, sir. I don't know what you want from me, sir.”

“You don't know what I want?” he repeats. “What are you, stupid? I just told you!” Joe swings around to the crowd. “You want to know why Garrett's here? Because he'd stay out all night and wouldn't come home. Because he didn't go to school. Because he lied, he stole money, he took drugs,
and
he was messing around with his teacher, who was eight years older than him.”

My face is suddenly hot, and the air in my lungs is too thin to breathe.
What the
…? I can't believe my parents told them all that. What were they thinking? It's no one's business.

Once again Joe is under my chin, his face tilted up at mine close enough that I can smell the flowery scent of his hair gel. “You want
me
to tell you why you're here? Because you were disrespectful, disobedient, ignorant, and rebellious. You were ruining your life and your parents' lives, and you were too damn selfish and self-centered to care. Am I right, Garrett?”

My hands ball into fists. My heart is beating hard and my breaths are coming out short and fast. They play by a different set of rules here, and I'd better learn them fast. Out of the corner of my eye I see two blackshirted
chaperones moving toward us. That's when it hits me: This is a set up. Joe is trying to get me to take a swing at him.
“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.”

BOOK: Boot Camp
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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