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Authors: Todd Strasser

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BOOK: Boot Camp
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Robert scowls, and Sarah is quick to figure out why. “The gestapo was Hitler's secret police,” she explains. “I assume you know who Hitler was. Or am I still giving you too much credit?”

All you have to see is the imploring look Robert gives Joe to know everything Sarah just said is true.

“I'm thinking about what you said before, Sarah,” Joe says patiently. “Maybe you're right. Maybe you will die here. But it won't be because of anything any of us do. You're doing it to yourself.”

NINE

“You must earn the right to speak.”

“You can't win.”

On this hot and humid early summer day seven of us are squatting before white plastic buckets in a gravel area near the parking lot. Birds chirp in the trees, and dragonflies flit back and forth overhead. We're washing our clothes, but the sky is a thick gray haze, and when we spread them out on the gravel, they just lie there wet and don't dry. Clotheslines are not allowed. Rope of any sort is forbidden at Lake Harmony.

“Kids die here.”

Until a few moments ago there were ten of us, but Adam and two other guys got into a scuffle when one
of them accidentally knocked over Adam's bucket. Joe and Mr. Sparks dragged them away, leaving the rest of us in the hands of Ron and Jon. But they're across the parking lot, rinsing buckets with a hose.

“A kid died two years ago.” The one talking is Pauly, the frail blond boy.

“Shut up,” snarls David Zitface.

Pauly ignores him. “I'm going to die here. It's been a year and nine months and I'm still Level One.”

“Can it, Pauly,” hisses a dark-skinned boy named Stu. “Ron and Jon catch you talking, we'll all get in trouble.”

“Why will
you
get in trouble?” I ask Stu.

“Christ, not you too, Garrett,” Stu says with a sigh. “You're not supposed to talk. I'm a Level Three. I see you breaking a rule, I'm supposed to turn you in. You get caught talking and they know I heard you and didn't turn you in, then I'll get demerits. It's my butt that's on the line.”

Ignoring him, Pauly continues: “You want to know why I'm here?”

“For God's sake, Pauly, if you gotta talk, at least whisper!” Stu beseeches under his breath.

“Back off,” Pauly says. “I'm talking to Garrett.”

White buckets filled with sudsy water scrape over the gravel as Stu and some of the other boys inch away. By disregarding the rules Pauly threatens to drag them all down. On the other hand, as Level Ones, he and I risk nothing except a trip to TI. But why is Pauly so willing to get in trouble just to talk to me?

“I'm here because I'm not the son my father
wanted,” Pauly continues. “He wanted a big, strong kid like you.”

“Instead he got a freakin' faggot who can't keep his mouth closed,” David Zitface growls as he slides his bucket farther from us.

“If my dad found out I was having an affair with an older woman, he'd be thrilled,” says Pauly.

“I wonder why,” sniggers Unibrow Robert.

“Everyone thinks I'm gay,” says Pauly, “but I'm not. I think about girls all the time. I have wet dreams about them.”

“Whoa, that's
way
more information than we need,” says David Zitface.

By now the other guys have dragged their buckets at least thirty feet from us. Pauly keeps his head turned away from them. “Think they can still hear me?” he suddenly whispers.

I shake my head ever so slightly. But what's he up to?

“Okay, listen up, this is serious,” Pauly whispers with unexpected urgency. “You and I are
never
gonna get out of here. You're kidding yourself if you think you can graduate by just obeying the rules and saying you're sorry for what you did before. You have to
believe
it. That's what they do here. They indoctrinate you to the Lake Harmony way of thinking. It's something you can't fake.”

Pauly's words spill out in a rush of conviction, as if he's been waiting weeks to say them. “You see Jon and Ron? They're not faking. It's brainwashing, and it works on a lot of these kids because they
have
done
something wrong. They've done drugs and broken the law and all kinds of crap.”

He pauses and studies me. “Okay, don't answer. You're smart. As long as they don't see you talking, you can't get in trouble. Good thing they haven't figured out how to punish kids for listening. Just give me some kind of sign, like whether you want me to keep talking or go away.”

I give him the slightest nod. Guess it can't hurt to hear what he has to say.

“Right. Okay, so how is being in love wrong?” Pauly whispers. “How is being born a weak geek like me wrong? What do they want me to believe? That I'm a frickin' mistake? See, the problem with this place is they take anyone they get. As long as your parents pay the bill, Lake Harmony doesn't care. Your parents sent you here because they want you to be a different person. Mr. Z and company are happy to oblige.”

I wonder if Pauly thinks we're friends because I stopped Adam and his gang from beating him in the bathroom. But I would have done that for anyone.

“There's another thing,” Pauly goes on. “Some kids think if they wait long enough, someone'll come save them. Like a sister or an uncle or someone. Well, it ain't happening. Your parents signed a confidentiality agreement not to tell anyone where this place is. No one can come get you, because no one except your parents knows where you are.”

A crow lands on the gravel a few yards to our left. The large black bird cocks its head and looks at us, then lifts its wings and flaps away. Sabrina has no idea where
I am. What would I have done if she'd been the one who'd suddenly disappeared without warning? Would I have tried to find her? Would I have simply waited for the day she'd return? How long would I have waited?

How long will she wait?

“There's only one answer,” Pauly whispers. “We have to get out of here. It's our only chance. And we're not alone. There's another person who'll go with us. Think it over, okay?”

The kid has to be crazy to tell me this. Doesn't he realize I could rat him out and score major points with Joe? Or is this a setup? A trap to see if I'd really be stupid enough to agree to try to escape? Thirty feet away, Stu clears his throat. Joe and Mr. Sparks are walking toward the parking lot. As they near us, Unibrow Robert intercepts them. “Pauly was talking, sir. He said a kid died here two years ago and that he's going to die here. He said if his dad found out he was having a relationship with an older woman, he'd be thrilled.”

A laugh bursts uncontrollably from Mr. Sparks's lips, but Joe shoots him a silencing look, and the chaperone covers his mouth with his hand and pretends to cough. Meanwhile, Joe stands over Pauly, who hangs his head, awaiting his sentence.

“Twenty-five push-ups, fifty sit-ups, and a hundred squat thrusts,” Joe orders.

Pauly moves slowly away from his bucket. He steps out of his flip-flops and assumes the prone position. He manages to do five push-ups before it becomes an effort. His back dips like an old horse's and his arms tremble.
By the eighth push-up he's dropped to his knees.

“Seventeen more,” Joe barks.

It's a struggle. Each push-up is feebler than the last, until Pauly can barely lift his shoulders off the gravel. Next come the sit-ups, the gravel clinging to the back of his polo shirt each time he manages to rise. Like the push-ups, these become more and more pathetic until he needs to prop himself up with his elbows in order to sit.

All the while Joe stands over him, counting. It is, of course, the perfect punishment for the boy whose father wants to toughen him up.

Finally, Pauly completes the sit-ups. Now with bare hands and feet he starts the squat thrusts, slamming the palms of his hands down on the rough, pointy gravel, then kicking his bare feet out behind him. It must be incredibly painful, and by the twentieth squat thrust two toes on his left foot are scraped bloody. Tears run down Pauly's cheeks.

That's when I realize this was no trap. Pauly
knew
he was going to get caught if he talked to me. He knew the punishment would be painful. But that's how badly he wants to get out of here.

Later we line up in the hall before dinner. Pauly is in front of me, shoulders slouched, head hanging, beaten down. In the flip-flops his bare feet are covered with dark scabs and smeared with dried blood. Like animals in a herd knowing instinctually that the weakest member will most likely attract a predator's attack, the others stay as far away from him as they can.

Joe walks down the line and stops beside me. “I hear Pauly had a lot to say this afternoon. Maybe you'd like to fill us in.”

“He said his father sent him here because he's not the son he wanted, sir,” I reply.

“What else?”

“Lake Harmony will take anyone whose parents are willing to pay, sir.”

“What else?”

“I shouldn't think anyone's going to come get me because no one knows where I am.”

“What else?”

I pretend to think for a moment. “That's all, sir.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

Now it's Joe's turn to pause. “Step out of line, Garrett.”

I do as ordered.

Joe takes a stick of gum out of his shirt pocket and slowly unwraps it. Lake Harmony does not serve dessert or anything sweet, and the minty scent is incredibly tantalizing. Joe waves the stick under my nose before he pops it into his mouth. Then he crumples the wrapper and drops it on the floor.

“Pick it up,” he orders.

I bend down and get it. When I straighten back up, Joe holds out his hand, palm upward. But that doesn't mean he wants me to put the wrapper in it.

Joe smiles. “Not bad, Garrett. Now give it to me.”

I place it in his palm. He turns his hand over, and the wrapper falls to the floor. “Pick it up.”

My eyes meet Joe's. Under the mustache a slightly sadistic smile traces his lips. Once again I bend down and pick up the wrapper, then wait for the next order. Joe tells me to give it to him, and when I do, he drops it. “Pick it up, stupid.”

I do what he says.

“Give it to me.”

He drops it.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

It's Simon Says for boot-campers. The others watch, some with amusement on their faces, others wincing at the malicious nature of it.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

“Ahem.” Mr. Sparks clears his throat.

Joe checks his watch. “The rest of you, go with Mr. Sparks to dinner.”

They march away down the hall while I stay behind with Joe. We're alone now.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

Finally, I make a mistake. He drops the wrapper and I bend to pick it up.
Crunk!
He knees me in the face. Blood gushes out of my nose, dripping onto my shirt. I tilt my head back and pinch the bridge of my nose, but it hardly stops the bleeding. Joe grimaces and steps back.

“I thought you were supposed to be a smart guy, Garrett. Did I tell you to pick it up?”

Still pinching my nose, I answer, “No, sir.”

“Then why did you?”

“Made a mistake, sir.”

Drip
… A drop of blood plops to the floor at my feet.

Drip
… Another drop of blood falls.

Joe stares down with a look of revulsion on his face. But I can't do anything about it.

Drip …

Drip …

Joe makes a decision.

“All right, pick it up, stupid.”

On the floor the wrapper lies among the drops of blood. Pinching my nose with one hand, I reach down with the other. Of course, this starts the blood flowing again. Some gets on the gum wrapper. When I straighten up, Joe is waiting with his palm out. I hold the damp, red, sticky wrapper and wait.

“Give it to me.”

But this time he moves his hand so the wrapper falls straight to the floor.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

“Give it to me.”

Each time I go to drop the wrapper, he moves his hand so that it falls to the floor.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

Each time I bend down, the blood gushes from my nose anew. The constant bending and straightening makes me dizzy. I begin to feel light-headed and
have to plant my hands on my knees.

“Did I say you could stop?” Joe demands.

“No, sir.”

“Then pick it up, stupid.”

I reach down for the gum wrapper, which is now lying in a puddle of blood. Suddenly my vision becomes distorted, as if everything is made of Silly Putty and it's being stretched in all directions. The next thing I know, the floor is racing up toward my face.

Thunk!

When I come to, the right side of my face throbs with pain where it must have hit the floor. My chest feels wet, and I realize I'm lying on the puddle of blood. A different kind of pain emanates from my ankle, where Joe is pressing down with the sole of his shoe.

“Did I say you could fall down?”

“No … sir.”

“Get up.”

Still dizzy, my face wet with blood and my shirt sticking to my skin, I slowly rise to my feet. The only good news is that my nose finally seems to have stopped bleeding.

“Pick it up, stupid.”

I look down at the smeared streaks and globs of reddish-brown blood coagulating on the floor. The wrapper isn't there. Joe looks down and searches for it. Then he looks up and wrinkles his nose in disgust as he stares at my chest. The gum wrapper is stuck to my shirt with blood-red glue.

I pick the wrapper off and hold it out to him. Joe jerks back as if I just offered him a fresh turd or
something. He looks like he's ready to barf.

BOOK: Boot Camp
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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