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Authors: Todd Strasser

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BOOK: Boot Camp
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I take a step back, unclench my fists, and inhale and exhale deeply. My heart is still beating, but the anger is beginning to drain. “Yes, sir. You're right, sir.”

Joe's eyes widen for a moment. He knows he almost had me. He looks past me at the approaching chaperones. “Mr. Sparks. Mr. Gold. Take this punk to TI.”

The chaperones are the same two who guarded the door to the windowless room when I first arrived. The tall athletic one and the short troll. At the other tables kids grin and leer as if they're glad I'm being taken away. The girl with the black hair and the sign around her neck is one of the few who doesn't look pleased. Our eyes meet again, and she purses her lips and shakes her head slightly, as if to say she's sorry.

Even though I make no attempt to resist, the troll, Mr. Gold, grabs my left wrist and roughly twists my arm behind my back as if I need to be restrained. Mr. Sparks places his hand firmly around my right biceps. They guide me out of the food hall… and into hell.

FIVE

“Lake Harmony has your parents' consent to administer whatever punishment is deemed necessary.”

Welcome to TI—Temporary Isolation—where I am forced to lie facedown on the cold concrete floor for twenty-four hours a day except for a few minutes here and there to eat or use the bathroom. After a day your chin becomes sore, your neck muscles cramp, and your knees and ribs grow raw from pressing against the hard floor. After two days parts of your body that shouldn't hurt—your elbows and hips, your lower back—begin to ache.

The concrete has a sour, musty smell. You realize
that dozens—no, probably hundreds—of other kids have lain on this very same spot. Is it their sweat you smell, or are you imagining it? Is this the same spot where they placed their faces? Thoughts like this fill me with revulsion, as I can't escape the sense that I'm lying on the germs, the sweat, the smells of the hundreds who've lain here before.

And that's only a small part of the torture. What's far worse is the mental torment. First there's the monotony. Day after day, hour after hour, alone with your thoughts. Perhaps if you were sent to Lake Harmony because you dealt drugs or robbed somebody or stole a car, they would expect you to reflect on the error of your ways and see the mistakes you've made. But what if you haven't done anything seriously wrong, what then?

Only it's not really about what I think is right or wrong, is it? My parents sent me here because it's about what
they
think. And that's a different story. School may have come easily to me; learning to live in my parents' world was much harder. There it seemed that I was always making mistakes. School was black and white. You either knew the answer or you didn't. You were either right or wrong. In my parents' world black was sometimes white, but sometimes it was another color altogether.

On the floor in TI these painful memories stand out like thorns on the stem of a rose. Like the time I was eight and we were having dinner at my father's club. I was wearing my club “uniform”—blue blazer, white shirt, gray slacks. The only opportunity for self-expression
came with my choice of ties. That night, I'd chosen a green bow tie.

“You know I don't like that bow tie,” said my mother, who was wearing a red dress and white pearls.

“Oh, come on,” said my father. “He's just experimenting.”

The Frampsons, a family we knew, entered the dining room. Most of the women in my mother's circle were so thin you might think they were emaciated. But Mrs. Frampson was the exception—plump, though certainly not fat. My mother leaned toward my father and me. Her streaked blond hair brushed across the rim of her wine glass. “Look at Hallie Frampson. She just had thousands of dollars' worth of plastic surgery. I don't think it did a bit of good.”

Then she waved and smiled at the Frampsons, who came toward our table. As was the custom at the clubs we belonged to, my parents and I rose to greet them. Males shook hands with males. Females kissed females and males on both cheeks.

“Hallie, you look wonderful,” my mother gushed.

The Frampsons stayed and chatted for a moment, then moved on. My parents and I sat down again.

“Why did you tell her she looked wonderful?” I asked. “A second ago you said all that plastic surgery didn't do a bit of good.”

My mother's cheeks turned bright red as she stared past me. I turned and saw Hallie Frampson standing only a few feet away. She'd stopped to say hello to someone at the table behind us. Obviously, she'd heard what I'd said. Now her hands rose to her
face and she rushed toward the ladies' room.

“You little brat,” my mother snapped, then jumped up and hurried to the ladies' room to make amends.

You little brat…
The words stung worse than the hardest slap, mainly because I didn't understand what I'd done wrong. But that was only the beginning.

When I was nine years old and in third grade at the “prestigious” Governor's School, we were assigned to write about our parents' jobs. This is what I wrote:

My father is a lawyer who works on mergers and acquisitions. He helps companies buy other companies. Suppose Bob's Ice Cream Company wants to raise the price of its ice cream to $5 a quart. The problem is Max's Ice Cream Company sells its ice cream for $4 a quart. Bob's is worried that if it raises the price, its customers will switch to Max's. So Bob's hires my father to help them buy Max's company. Once Bob's owns Max's it can charge whatever it wants for its ice cream.

My mother runs a crisis management firm. She helps companies and people who are in trouble. Suppose Tom's Construction Company builds a building that falls down and kills a bunch of people. The relatives of the people who died tell the newspapers they think the building fell down because Tom didn't build it right. But Tom thinks the building fell down because Mary's Brick Company sold them bad bricks. So Tom hires my mom's company to make sure the newspapers know that it was Mary's
fault, not his. Or suppose a famous actress gets caught shoplifting. She's worried the bad publicity will ruin her career, so she hires my mom's company to explain that she accidentally took the wrong medicine and didn't know what she was doing.

I got an A. Back then I always got As. But even the As weren't enough. At home my father thought the essay was funny, but my mom got mad because she said it made what she did sound too simple. And besides, she said, I should have written about her first and my dad second because she owned her own company while my dad worked for someone else.

To fight the monotony and boredom of TI, I begin to relive memories: the day I walked into math class and saw Sabrina for the first time, in a red short-sleeved dress, writing an equation on the board; the first time we met outside of school; the first kiss; the first time we made love; and then every time after that.

When I run out of those memories, I recall family vacations—Caribbean beaches, snow-covered mountains in British Columbia, Italian museums—day by day and then hour by hour. I play songs in my head. Then entire CDs, track by track. Then movies, especially my favorites, scene by scene. All this helps, but not enough. Sooner or later an ache or a sudden hunger pang or a full bladder brings me back, and once again I am lying on the cold, hard floor aware of every second grinding slowly past.

“Tell us what you learned in TI, Garrett,” Joe orders.

A week or so later a dozen of us are seated in a circle of orange plastic chairs in a small room. In fact, this session is called Circle. A brown curtain is drawn over the only window, and the walls are bare, as if to make sure we have nothing to look at except each other. Half the kids are males from my family. The other half are females from the Truth family. As far as I know, this is the only time males and females are allowed to mix at Lake Harmony.

The girl with the black hair and clear blue eyes is in this group. She is still wearing that sign around her neck.

I slowly rise to my feet. Various parts of my body still hurt, and my back is stiff. “It was extremely unpleasant, sir.” My voice sounds strange to me. This is the first time I've spoken in I don't know how many days.

“I don't care what you
thought
of it,” Joe snaps. “I asked what you
learned
from it.”

What did I learn from TI? That it takes about four days for a caffeine headache to finally go away. That a foot or a hand can go numb and tingly for no apparent reason other than lack of use. That when too many thoughts press in on you, one way to escape is to focus all your attention on each individual breath.

“I learned that it's really uncomfortable to lie facedown on the floor for a week, sir.”

Around the room kids snigger. Most of them are still faces without names.

Joe's nose twitches, though his eyes aren't as puffy
or red as before. “What else did you learn?” he asks.

“I don't know, sir.”

“You don't know?” Joe repeats, taunting. “I thought you were a smart guy, Garrett. How can you not know?”

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

Joe squints and sets his jaw as if he's getting angry. I wonder if it's real anger or just an act. “Boy, you must either be stupider than we thought or a damn masochist to give me that answer. Don't you remember why you got sent to TI in the first place?”

“Send him back,” says a thin kid with short brown hair and a face covered with bumpy zits. He sits hunched over, a finger between his lips, gnawing on a fingernail.

I expect Joe to yell at him for speaking out of turn, but my “father” just gazes at me, waiting for my answer.

“You said I had to learn to obey authority, sir.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Liar,” spits a chubby, red-cheeked girl with stringy brown hair.

“Send him back,” repeats Zitface Boy.

A stocky guy with short black hair, deep-set eyes, and thick black eyebrows that meet in the center of his forehead glowers at me. “You are full of crap.”

Thus I discover that in Circle we are allowed to speak out as long as what we say shows support for the group leader. Meanwhile, the girl with the black hair widens her eyes and gives me an alarmed look, as if
trying to warn me that I'm headed for trouble.

“So there was a time when you didn't obey authority?” asks Joe.

“I guess that depends on your definition of authority, sir.”

“I define authority as p-a-r-e-n-t-s.” Joe spells the word out. “In your case, parents who expected you to come home at night, go to school during the day, not take drugs, not steal money, and listen to what they said.”

“Sir, with all due respect? I went to school enough to make the honor roll. I only smoked once in a while, and the money I took wasn't even pocket change to them.”

“That's not what your parents said,” Joe replies.

“Can parents ever be wrong, sir?” I ask. “Or, sir, more precisely, if our parents weren't paying for us to be here,
then
could they ever be wrong?”

The kids in Circle go quiet. The question has struck something inside each of them. As if they've all wondered or wanted to ask the same thing at one time or another. Joe instantly shoots them a warning look.

Sitting next to me the red-haired kid with the freckles and the lizard teeth snorts loudly with ridicule. “That's phat.”

“Yeah, right!” chimes Chubby Girl, her eyes darting toward Joe for approval.

A noisy chorus of antagonism follows as kids eagerly jump at the opportunity to show Joe that they know better. That they've learned the lesson I'm still struggling with.

“Of course our parents were right, you jerk!”

“Come on, idiot, when are you gonna take responsibility?”

“You can't go through life blaming everyone else when you're the one at fault!”

As each of them recites another patented Lake Harmony slogan—their personal pledge of allegiance—they look to their all-knowing “father” for brownie points.

“Just a perfect little angel,” adds glowering Unibrow Boy. “Never had a problem with no one. Doesn't even know why he's here. It must be some kind of mistake.” Like the red-haired kid, he radiates an aura of danger.

“Sit down, Garrett,” Joe barks. “Suppose I told you that as soon as we're finished with Circle, you're going back to TI? Think that would change your mind?”

“How, sir?” I ask.

Joe stares at me in disbelief, and now I'm pretty sure it's no act. “You really don't get it, do you?”

“He's too stupid,” says the red-haired one with the lizard teeth.

“Nah, he thinks he's too smart,” counters Zitface. “Just because you memorized the bible doesn't mean you learned it!”

“You haven't learned squat,” growls Unibrow.

“Yeah,” agrees Chubby Girl. “Send him back to TI.”

As if once wasn't enough, the kids in Circle unleash a second barrage of ridicule. It is all, I suspect, designed to curry favor with Joe and earn the points required to move up to the next level and the tiny freedoms that
come with it. The wave of abusive shouts and insults all blends together into white noise. But under it I hear someone speaking in my ear. It's the red-haired kid leaning close. “I am gonna mess you up, big guy,” he says in a low voice. “Got it? TI is nothing compared to what I am gonna do to you.”

What is this?
I wonder, turning to face him. He glares back menacingly, his little yellow lizard teeth bared. Why is he threatening me? Under the freckles his skin looks pasty, as if the blood doesn't circulate properly. Maybe there's not enough of it going to his brain.

Meanwhile, Joe allows the verbal abuse to flow for a while, then yells at the others to shut up. Like well-trained dogs, they instantly obey.

BOOK: Boot Camp
10.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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