I could hear my mother sobbing as the staff led me down the hall, away from her. My rage and feelings of betrayal bubbled in my throat and I fought the urge to spit some cruel words out to make her cry harder. How dare she sob in pain when she was the one hurting me, I thought. I didn’t hear anything my father was muttering but I knew he probably wasn’t doing too much to comfort her. With my dark green Under Armour duffel slung over my shoulder, I rounded the hallway corner and stepped out of their sight.
I couldn’t tell which was greater: my relief at being away from my parents or my fear at being entrusted to the hands of people who were clearly untrustworthy. Having only recently turned 14, I didn’t have much choice so I didn’t dwell on it. This picture was taken the weekend before I was sent into this new home. Here we go, I thought. Time to experience life away from my family.
The staff member led me up a flight of steps and into the main living area of the massive Victorian style house. It smelled of pine, bleach and something else I wasn’t familiar with. Tossing her long red hair, Jane, my newest captor, led me through the living room and into the kitchen. As she directed me to set my bag on the floor, I noticed padlocks securing the refrigerator shut. Great, I thought. Without my bag, she led me into the master bedroom of the house, which served as the staff office. Closing the door, she told me coldly to strip completely, her eyes running up and down my thin body.
My eyes were a deep red; I hadn’t slept the entire night. This was supposed to be my first day of tenth grade in my high school but instead, I was here. I had promised I would somehow make it through summer break without doing anything drastic to get away from my family and in the very last week, I had cracked and run away from home. Clearly, it hadn’t worked out, and my parents were going to take drastic measures to get me back under their control. They had taken me to this ‘Christian home for troubled teens’.
I scratched the inside of my burning knee and stared blankly at Jane. No one had ever told me to strip. I didn’t know why she would want me to. I had run away from home once and nothing else; why would I need to take my clothes off?
Jane: Did you hear me? I said take your clothes off.
Me: Why? Are you homo?
Jane: Don’t ask me why. Just do it.
Me: It’s my body and you can’t see it. No.
Jane: Do I have to get the other staff members in here to hold you down so I can take your clothes off? It won’t be pretty. The only other staff on today are guys.
I was silent. Was this legal? What WAS this place? I stood there, frozen. What should I do? I was a recovering anorexic kid still completely disgusted with every dimple on my body. I never wanted anyone to see me in a tank top and now this strange woman was coldly demanding that I get naked in front of her? But what if she really did call the men in to hold me down? I knew when my parents told me to do something and I refused, my father would forcefully seize me and drag my arms and legs to do what he wanted, his big hands crushing my wrists. When I gave them attitude, they would hold me down and crash a full bar of Dove soap against my tightly closed lips until they bled. The moment my mouth opened, they would grind the soap into a nub on my teeth. Calling on my experience, I began to believe that the men would come in and rip my clothes off. I removed my hoodie.
My clothes lay in a pitiful pile around my bony ankles. Jane’s eyes raked me up and down for nearly a full minute and I realized something: She enjoyed this. She loved standing over my cold exposed body with my every motion at her mercy. She was going to be in charge of me. Jane had me pile everything into a plastic bag, then squat and cough. Another staff member, Anne, walked in without knocking and left the door open behind her. She walked past me as if I was invisible and handed Jane what I realized were papers about me.
Anne: Here’s Skye’s folder. Her parents just finished briefing us. She’s going to be a pretty easy one, that’s for sure.
Jane: I can’t tell. She’s got an attitude. She wouldn’t even let me search her.
Search me?? This woman had violated me! She hadn’t even looked at my clothes. Anne turned around, finally regarding me with a lazy, cynical eye. She was a rotund dirty blond in her mid twenties. Her eyes were a cold gray color and they locked onto mine. In spite of the open door and my nakedness, I wasn’t going to look weak. I held her gaze evenly. These people weren’t going to ‘break’ me after all I had already been through. The message beamed from my eyes into hers and she broke my gaze with a sneer.
Anne: We’ll get her back on track, even if it takes years.
She strode out of the room, leaving the door open behind her. I understood the threat and I made myself a promise: I was going to make sure she would know every step of the way that I wasn’t going to ‘get back on track’.
Jane threw some clothes in my direction: a long sleeved tee shirt with the school name emblazoned down the sleeves and across the front and back, as well as black sweatpants that bore the same insignia. Obviously they wanted us well marked if we ran away. Wait, I realized. They had to have a runaway problem if these clothes were so conspicuously marked; That meant it could be done. I started to smile and checked myself; the end result was some kind of smirk.
Jane: Do you think this is funny? Do you think the way you have gone against God and sinned is FUNNY? Once you finish dressing I will show you what sin does to you.
I pulled the clothes on slowly and deliberately, never breaking eye contact with her. She began to tap her foot. I realized that one of their most valuable assets was likely time and keeping to a structured schedule, so I decided to do everything as slowly and inconveniently as possible. She tapped her foot faster, so I slowed even more. When I started to pull the sweatpants up my legs at roughly an inch a minute, she seized the waistband and pulled them up hard. I grinned at her. Even though I knew making enemies in this situation was only going to make my situation far worse, my anger and need to have some form of control overtook my senses. No one could hurt me like I’d already been hurt; I was emotionally completely numb. Physical pain was something I would already withstand incredible amounts of; any time I felt it creep in or sledgehammer into me, I would simply relax into it. If they planned to harm me, I was ready.
Thankfully, I had taken nearly an hour to dress myself and had ruined any chance Jane had to show me ‘what sin does’. It was time for the tour. A heavyset, mole-faced woman in her early thirties retrieved me. She wasn’t cruel or cold like Jane, but she still carried a sense of severity in her step. First she showed me around the house. There were three bedrooms, named by their color, containing at least two bunks each. After leading me through the heavily padlocked kitchen (even the pantry was dead-bolted) and the living room she told me never to touch, she showed me the ‘worship room’. It looked like a normal living room to me, filled with couches, too many pillows and horrifically fluffy tiger printed rugs. No TV or phones, I noted. These people were all about isolation.
She led me outside. The yard was gigantic, fenced in by trees all around. I knew it was roughly an hour drive to the nearest town, my hometown, but I was already disoriented from the roads that had led me to this place. There were two cabins on the property. They were much nicer than the main house and the staff member (who was also the teacher) proudly gestured to two more construction sites nearby, telling me that people were so excited about their program that they were fully funding the construction of two more cabins, housing eight beds each. She explained that the boys in the program lived in the cabins and her tone changed. She darkly warned me that I was not to look at them, speak to them or make eye contact with them. To do so would restart me in the program, adding even up to a year to my sentence. I didn’t care; my skinny flat-chested self wasn’t interested in other species such as boys.
She led me to the basement of one of the cabins. Swinging open the door, I could see roughly a dozen girls sitting at long plastic tables lining the walls. They were unable to look at each other. Right by the entrance, there was a glassed-off office where, the teacher explained, she watched us to make sure we were focusing on our home school work and not speaking. Above each girl’s head was a large sheet of paper with their name decorated across it in markers. Clearly, they gave the girls a chance to design their own space label. Lame, I thought.
Next she took me to the owner’s office. Her name was Ella. Ella and her husband Hugo owned and ran the program. I could never put my finger on what it was about her that creeped me out so much: she was friendly, had some charming accent and laughed jovially. She made listening faces when I spoke (I think I was recounting my Runaway Attempt #1 chapter) but never said much. I stopped, realizing I’d said too much. This woman was a restaurant owner in my hometown who had felt compelled to start a corrective Christian home for troubled teens. After little reaction and nearly no words, she nodded me out of the room where Jane retrieved me. Leading me down to the hallway I had strode away from my parents in just hours earlier, she swung open the last door in the hall. A grey-haired, weathered looking woman waited for me, seated stonily at a small desk. The moment I stepped into the room, Jane grabbed the doorknob and closed the door rapidly, leaving me trapped in the room with the thin statue woman. There was something crazy in this woman’s eyes. Her name was Cathy.
Cathy sat in her desk chair, casually swinging it back and forth. She didn’t bother with introductions.
Cathy: This session, being your first, is recorded. Please answer the following questions.
Why did you parents send you here?
Me: Because I ran away from home.
Cathy: Why did you run away?
I stared at her calculatingly. This woman was the one who worked alongside Jane and Anne. The glint in her eye and the jerkiness of her words as they left her mouth screamed mentally unstable to me. She went through friendly motions, but there was something lifeless about the way she smiled at me; there was something rancid and corpse-like about her. I wasn’t going to trust her, I decided.
In response to her question, I raised my shoulders and let them drop. I don’t remember much more of how the session went; she expressionlessly continued to roll through questions. I remember staring at the deep grooves that covered her face and wondering how someone with no life in their eyes could rack up so many wrinkles. Jane came to fetch me as soon as Cathy had finished getting nowhere with me.
It was almost time for the other girls to get out of ‘class’. I was told I would receive one week of ‘grace’ to learn all the rules as long as I would tell the staff I had broken them. Jane didn’t take any time to tell me any of the rules except for one: I was not to be alone with, make eye contact with or otherwise engage with two other girls who were new to the house as well. I rolled my eyes. She handed me a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, also covered in the insignia of the house and told me to get ready for ‘gym time’. I slipped into the bathroom, donning the clothes. Jane led me out through the lunch room: a garage with window panes jammed in where the garage doors used to be. We approached Cathy, who, surrounded by the other girls, was explaining how many laps around the campus they needed to run.
My first thought was relief. I was a cross country runner; it would be easy. The next thing I noticed was how bafflingly cheery all the girls seemed to be, cooing with joy at being told to run. They’re brainwashed, I thought. I mentally piled more reinforcement onto my resolve. They wouldn’t get to me.
I ran all five laps around the campus easily, out-lapping even their fastest runner. This was my jam. At the end of it I stopped, panting lightly before Cathy.
Cathy: You’re done?
Cathy: You have very little integrity. Do you know how much the Bible talks about honesty?
Me: What do you mean? I ran all the laps.
Cathy: No you didn’t. No one runs them that fast. Run five more.
She had DOUBLED the workout because I was too fit for her to believe? I stared at her incredulously. She must be kidding. She had to be.
Cathy: Well? What are you waiting on? The Rapture?
This woman was insane! I started to run again, my thin frame whistling down the asphalt path. I wasn’t running to please her; I was running to get away from her. Was this place quite literally going to torture me till I broke? How could I reinforce my barriers against them? My thoughts outran my stride as I flew through five additional laps. Even still, I continued to out-lap the slowest of the girls. I noticed one of them was wearing high-top sneakers. I wondered how she would even try to run in such shoes.
The evening was a blur. We ate dinner. I learned many of the rules from hurried whispers from the girls. The following words were forbidden:
Hell. Heck. Shoot. Shucks. Darn. Dad. Mom. Mother. Chunk. Funk. Fret. Freak. Scooby. Crap. Crud. Poop. Fart. Pass gas. Golly. Gosh. Dang. Sheesh.
We were not to sing, whistle or hum unless it was a Christian song. No references to any kind of secular media, music especially, were permitted. If you broke a rule or accidentally said a forbidden word you had to tell a staff member. No make up or jewelry was permitted, but it didn’t bother me. The girls tightly policed each other, making sure they confessed their sins to Jane and Anne. In order to move to each new phase in the program, a list of assignments had to be completed. Looking over the binder I was given, I noted with disgust that they were mostly Bible research assignments and confession lists to be written. In order to move to each level, one had to have perfect behavior, actively work with Cathy to resolve their issues and complete the assignments. I thought of Cathy and my heart sank. I would never open up to her, I realized. Then there was the ultimate punishment: Quiet Time (QT):
If you were placed on QT, you essentially had to pretend you didn’t exist. You were forbidden to make eye contact with anyone, be alone in a room with another student, speak, cough, laugh or make any facial expression. Being placed on QT, one of the girls explained, was even worse than isolation; you could see the world moving around you like you weren’t there. QT was assigned freely and for long periods of time.
Next was mealtime. We were required to clear three quarters of our plates at every meal for the staff to see, no matter how unpalatable the food was. We not permitted any more or any less than what they gave. For the following two hours after meals we were required to sing loudly while using the bathroom to ensure we weren’t making ourselves throw up.
We ate and then dressed for bed. I was given a top bunk in the largest room above one girl who seemed to be wholly brainwashed. In the top bunk beside me was Shayla, who was still fairly new as well and still fighting. Below her was Jess. Jess was a goofball with a dangerous glint in her eye. Something was off about her. Lights were turned off, blankets pulled up and we were on Quiet Time for the night.
The alarm screeched suddenly. It was still dark out and my limbs still ached from the events of the previous days. I groaned into a sitting position and put my face on my hands, rubbing my eyes. A burning, itchy sensation roared down the insides of my legs. Lifting the blanket to see what was wrong through bleary eyes, I noted massive poison ivy rashes running down both legs. Great, I thought. I remembered the last time I had it, it had spread to my face, swelling my eyes nearly shut. I scratched my cheek and felt another bump. It was already on my face. I must have gotten it while sleeping in the woods, I realized. Too tired to dwell on my newest problem, I looked around. The girls in the bunk under mine had leaped out of bed to claim the bathroom ahead of everyone. The other two girls were making their beds hurriedly. I followed suit.
Being the new kid, I was last to use the bathroom. Once I was ready to go I was beckoned downstairs by Shayla. I started. She wasn’t supposed to have any contact with me. A tiny seed of hope sprouted in my mind. Maybe these girls weren’t all brainwashed; maybe some of them had some kind of system.
We had oatmeal for breakfast, cooked by an exhausted looking student named Britney. It actually wasn’t that bad. After breakfast, the light was starting to seep in the many windows. Anne was supervising us. She sat back and started giving cleaning assignments. Once we had all been assigned a section of the house to clean, we lined up in front of the pantry for medication. Anne dispensed them one at a time to us. Jess, the crazy eyed girl, was behind me in line. I felt her breath on my ear but I didn’t turn.
Jess: Save your meds for me.
Me: No. I can’t.
Jess: Just cheek them.
Me: Nuh uh.
I had gotten too close to the front of the line to say anything else, and Jess withdrew. I took my meds and picked up my materials for my cleaning assignment. I was going to be helping….crap, I realized: I was helping Jess clean the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, we were all spread around the house, cleaning every crevice. Anne was in her bedroom-office on the phone. Someone had put Christian worship music on, blasting it from a small boom box in the kitchen. It was so loud that when I dropped a spoon, the sound was completely lost in the blaring screams for salvation. I didn’t hear Jess come up behind me.
She struck me with a broom handle behind the knees and I crumpled to the floor. My shout perfectly matched the wails of broken souls pouring out of the stereo. I tried to scramble to my feet and she pushed me back down with her foot, dumping her weight into the middle of my back. I thought I heard it pop but in the racket, it was impossible to tell.
She turned the broom upside down, her eyes glinting a hateful smile. When she brought it down directly into the back of my right knee, my vision erupted into a red haze. I don’t remember if I screamed or quietly gasped, but for the noise it wouldn’t have mattered.
This was my new home.
TO BE CONTINUED….
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