Authors: Todd Strasser
“You may be placed in Temporary Isolation at any time for any reason.”
“Take Garrett to TI, Mr. Gold,” Joe says the next morning.
“But sir, what about what Adam did to Pauly?” I ask, while the troll grabs my wrist and twists my arm hard behind my back to make sure I cooperate.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Joe replies. “Ron and Jon, come with us.”
I glance at Pauly, who hangs his head and won't meet my gaze. If he talks, it's a death sentence.
Keeping my arm behind my back, the troll walks me down the hall. Joe follows, spewing his nonstop litany
of abuse. “You still don't get it, Garrett. You think you're smart, but you're too stupid to see how it works here. You have no rights. Your opinions don't count. You're just a punk kid with a crap attitude, and you don't know squat. When are you gonna figure out that what you think doesn't matter? The only things that matter are what I think and what your parents think. That's why you're here, Garrett. Because you didn't listen to your parents. And that's what you're going to think about in TI, dimwit. Learning to listen. Learning to obey. Learning to do what your parents say.”
The troll shoves me into the TI room and follows with Ron and Jon. Joe remains in the doorway.
“No marks,” Joe says, and closes the door.
“Face down on the floor,” the troll orders.
I do as I'm told, and then Jon and Ron get to work. They spit and slap and twist and squeeze. Everything that hurts but will leave no telltale bruises tomorrow. I grit my teeth, trying not to let them have the satisfaction of knowing how much pain I'm in, but grunts and yelps escape my lips whenever the stabbing, twisting agony becomes too great. They grind the heels of their shoes into my knees and elbows. Only Level Ones through Fours are required to wear flip-flops, allegedly to slow us down in case we try to run away. Level Fives and Sixes are rewarded by being allowed to wear shoes.
“Stop!” I hear myself cry when Ron twists my arm so hard, it feels like it will explode out of the shoulder socket.
Standing near the door with his arms folded and a demented smile on his lips, the troll asks, “What's the
matter, Garrett? Can't take a little pain?”
“I'd like to see you take it.”
“WHAT?” the troll shouts. At the same moment Ron twists my arm harder.
“Sorry, sir!” I instantly apologize and feel relief as Ron eases up.
“You better be,” the troll murmurs.
The beating stops, and I feel my aching body go limp.
Sabrina, if you knew what I'm going through â¦
“Good work, boys.” The troll praises Ron and Jon as they leave, and the door slams and locks. So this is how they do it here. The staff can't be accused of harming kids because they have other kids do it for them. And why would Ron and Jon agree? Because you don't get out of Lake Harmony unless you prove whose side you're on.
“You deserve to be here.”
“Everything you did before was wrong.”
“You'll never leave until you learn to respect authority.”
“Change your attitude to gratitude. Your parents sent you here to save you. You owe them everything.”
Each day I hear these chants when Ron and Jon come back to slap and twist and spit. By now I've lost track of how long I've been in TI. Jon and Ron are like robot zombies. They drone the words with no feeling, as if they're reciting a mantra. The troll usually accompanies them for my daily beatings. But today for some reason he's not here.
“You suck, Gary Durrell.” Jon leans a knee into the
small of my back. “You're stupid, pathetic, and good for nothing. Just a miserable excuse for being human.”
“Are you even listening to what you're saying?” I ask, twisting my head around and looking up at him. “You just called me Gary. My name's Garrett.”
Above me Jon blinks. Both he and Ron pause from their “duties.” I roll over onto my elbows and look up at them. “Seriously, what are you guys doing?”
If ever there was a moment when one of them might have said something that showed they were faking or pretending just to get out of this place, now would be it. But instead Jon answers robotically: “You have to renounce your old ways.”
“You deserved to be sent here,” Ron adds. “We're trying to help you.”
“You guys really have been brainwashed,” I tell them.
The word detonates something in Jon.
He slaps me hard in the face. “You better stop mouthing off, loser.”
“You gotta admit you have anger issues,” Ron says.
And for the rest of the session they beat me extra hard.
The door to TI opens, and Joe comes in with Mr. Sparks.
“Get up, you worthless piece of crap.”
I rise slowly. My body aches from the daily torture. Feeling light-headed and dizzy, I have to put my hands
on my knees and bend at the waist to keep from passing out.
Joe smacks me across the back of the head. “Straighten up!”
I slowly obey his command. Joe steps close and stares up at me as if reading my eyes. “Nope, you still don't get it. Still think you don't belong here, right?”
There's no answer I can give that will satisfy him. Without warning he drives his fist into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I double over, gasping in pain.
“When I ask a question, you answer,” he barks.
It takes me a moment to catch my breath.
“If I answer, you'll just hit me again, sir.”
He hits me anyway.
Still in TI. The places where my body takes my weight on the floorâelbows, knees, hips, ribsâhave grown excruciatingly sore. In this windowless room I lose track of day and night; I merely doze on and off. Immeasurable lumps of time float past. To escape the numbing sameness, I retreat to the land of memories:
My dad and me rafting down the Colorado River, bucking the rapids, the cold water splashing my face, my hands gripping the safety ropes.
Sabrina and me spending four dollars on a truffle in a chocolate shop. The taste of chocolate and raspberry on my tongue. Then tasting it again on Sabrina's lips.
Lying on my bed at home, ears encased in Sennheiser headphones, listening to music with the volume so high
that the sound has a heavy, syrupy quality â¦
Another week passes. Or maybe it's only three days. Ron and Jon come in to deliver another beating. What scares me the most is knowing they really believe what they're doing. I don't know what happened in their lives before they got here, but they've become devoted disciples of the philosophy of Lake Harmony.
Because school came easily, I was often bored. Even in accelerated math the teacher would introduce a conceptâconverting fractions to percentages, for exampleâand I would get it right away. Then, while she was explaining it to the rest of the class, I would finish that night's homework assignment.
My parents complained that they never saw me doing any homework, and yet I always got the highest grades in the class. They asked if I could skip a grade, but the headmaster said it was important that I stay with my peer group. My dad suggested I go to a different school, but the Governor's School was the fanciest in the city and my mom liked telling people I went there.
At the age of twelve I stayed home for a week with strep throat. Back in school it only took a day or two to catch up and learn everything I'd missed. That's when I realized I didn't have to go every day.
“You have to go to school, Garrett,” my father said one night after receiving a call from the headmaster that I'd missed two days that week. My mother wasn't there. She was working late, as usual.
“I do go to school,” I answered.
my father stressed.
“Because you're supposed to,” he said.
“I thought I'm supposed to get good grades so I can go to a good college,” I said.
“That too,” said my father.
“But I don't need to go to school every day to do that,” I said.
“You still have to go every day,” he insisted.
“Because you do.”
“Because” wasn't enough for me. People got into college based on their grades, not on how often they attended school. Besides, there were other, more interesting things to do: museums to visit; neighborhoods to walk through, where the air was fragrant with the smells of exotic foods; old men in the park to play chess with; construction sites to explore. If it only took me two or three days a week to learn what other kids needed five for, why did I have to sit around and be bored?
“You will share the intimate details of your life.”
The door opens, and Mr. Sparks, the athletic, dark-skinned chaperone, comes in.
“Time to go, Garrett.”
“Where?” I ask in a daze.
“Where, sir,” he corrects me.
Mr. Sparks checks his watch. “Circle.”
I rise slowly and stiffly from the floor. Out in the hallway my balance is so unsteady that I weave like a drunk and have to press my hands against the walls like a sailor in a storm. My legs feel weak from disuse. The air in the hallway feels warm and sticky. Through
a small window I can see that the trees are covered with dark green leaves. A female with short brown hair lumbers across the field, carrying a car tire under each arm. She trips and falls face first to the ground. The tires bounce away and flop over. An upper-level female (same red polo shirt, but longer hair) screams at her to get up. Still peering through the window as I walk, I accidentally bang my shoulder turning the corner.
“Easy, Garrett,” Mr. Sparks says with a hint of amusement. “Don't want to hurt yourself after all that.”
Something about the tone of his voice makes me wonder if I should take a chance. “Can I ask how long I was in TI, sir?”
Mr. Sparks doesn't answer right away. He's walking behind me, and I don't dare turn around to see the expression on his face. We both know I've broken the rule against talking.
Relief washes through me when Mr. Sparks drops his voice and says, “A while.”
“How come they let me out, sir?”
“Guess they need the room for someone else.”
“How many Temporary Isolation rooms are there, sir?”
He doesn't answer. We're getting closer to our destination, but there's one more question I need to ask. “Sir, how do you get out of this place?”
“Give them what they want, Garrett,” Mr. Sparks answers in a solemn whisper, then steps past me and knocks on the door to circle.
Joe opens it. The red puffiness around his eyes has
receded, and his nose no longer twitches. “Well, look who's here,” he says with a sinister smile. “You miss us, Garrett?”
“Yes, sir,” I answer. It's probably the first time he's asked a question I could give an honest answer to. After all those days alone, it's good to see anyone who isn't there to hurt me.
“Come on in.”
Inside, Pauly greets me with a weak smile. He looks pale and thinner than before. The rash has spread over more of his body, but it isn't as deep-red or oozy. Now it's more pink in color. Lizard Teeth Adam and his henchmen David Zitface and Unibrow Robert are there.
A somber-looking girl sits next to Pauly. Her hair has been chopped into a ragged, uneven crew cut, as if it was done by a child with scissors. Her skin is so pasty, it's almost green. With a start I realize it's the girl who used to wear the sign around her neck. Her eyes, once so clear and blue, are now empty and sunken. Her arms are covered with Band-Aids and gauze pads held in place by white adhesive tape.
“Take a seat, Garrett,” Joe orders, then turns to the others. “Where were we?”
“Sarah, sir,” Adam reminds him.
“Right.” Joe nods grimly. “So what's it been, Sarah? Two and a half years?”
Sarah, the girl with the chopped black hair, stares down at the floor.
“I'm talking to you, Sarah,” Joe barks.
She looks up, and, as if mustering every last bit of
energy she has, says, “What are you going to do next, Joe? Kill me? I don't think my parents will keep paying four thousand dollars a month once I'm dead.”
The disrespect in her voice is shocking. By Lake Harmony standards she should be blindfolded and shot. But strangely, Joe doesn't react.
“You've already lost two and a half years of your life,” he replies in a measured tone. “You might as well have been dead all that time. And for what? All because you think you know more than your parents.”
“I never said that,” Sarah answers. “I just don't agree with what they believe. You can't
“If you can't believe, you can show respect,” Joe says.
“Come on, Joe,” Sarah says with a tired sigh. “We've been over this a hundred times. What's the point?”
“The point is, maybe if you go over it enough, it'll sink into that stupid brain,” says Unibrow Robert.
“Talk about stupid brains,” Sarah shoots back. “I'm not the one who got sent here for huffing glue.”
“Then how come I'm almost Level Four and you're still Level One?” Robert asks.
“Everybody knows why you're almost Level Four,” Sarah grumbles.
“Because I've learned that the person I used to be was a real jerk,” Robert claims. “When I get out, I'm not gonna be that person again. I'm gonna be a new person. A better person. Something you'll never be.”
“You are so full of it,” Sarah snorts. “Just repeating what Joe wants to hear doesn't prove anything. Being
part of Adam's little gestapo may help you rise through the levels, but it doesn't make you a better person.”