My father had coerced me into flying with him to Boise, where he had left me with an elderly couple. They were taking me somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where. I was famished; I hadn’t eaten all day, but they didn’t offer food. As I watched my father walk away, I stood in the terminal with my hands balled by my sides, fighting to control tears of rage and shock. I didn’t know the people he had left me with and though they seemed kind, I wasn’t going to let them see any weakness. They led me over to more seats by a gate, saying something to me but I wasn’t listening; every ounce of concentration was focused on beating back the small pools that were forming in my eyes before anyone noticed. After ten minutes of staring through the massive windows, squinting hard at a nearby plane, I felt my control over my expression and demeanor slowly regain balance. The tidal wave of feelings drained into the back of my mind and once again, I felt emotionless.
I coolly turned to face the woman, looking her up and down calculatingly. I needed to know how safe this woman actually was. Her wrinkles indicated she had smiled more often than scowled over the course of her life, but her closed body language and careful language suggested she wasn’t going to extend much trust to me. Her name was Annette and her husband was Paul.
“Well, aren’t we going somewhere?” I tried to insert as much tough attitude into my tone as I could muster without my voice cracking.
“Yes; we will be leaving shortly. There is one other flight coming in with two more kids. Be nice to the girl; she looks older but she is only 12.” She replied matter-of-factly.
“Why would I be mean to her? I don’t know what my dad has said to you but I’m not mean!” I argued, my exasperation showing in my voice.
Annette pursed her lips and didn’t reply; I continued to stare out the window. After roughly twenty minutes, Annette softly touched Paul’s forearm, pointing out a new flight arrival. They rose and I followed suit. Paul had me stay back with him as Annette made her way forward with her dry erase-board, quickly scrawling out the names of the two kids.
The boy seemed to know what to expect; he wasn’t with his parents. The girl was silent and looked around with fearful, sad eyes as her mother scurried quickly away from her, just as my father had. Annette and Paul herded us in front of them out of the airport. They led us to a beat-up dark green Suburban in the noisy parking structure. Girls in the same row, they instructed.
The crusty old Suburban rumbled down a labyrinth of dusty dirt roads. It felt like we had been bumping around in our seats for roughly four hours, and I had to go to the bathroom. The twelve-year-old Hispanic girl in the seat next to mine sat stiffly, her eyes wide in fear. Tommy, the sixteen-year-old pothead in the seat in front of us was twisted around, telling me about all his fun times with his friends. I made eye contact and listening sounds, but the rage whipping around my mind was too loud to hear what he was saying. Trying to make sense of the events of the last few hours, I stared out the window, watching sage bushes fly by.
As the Suburban rolled on through the hours, the sun faded. The girl still hadn’t spoken and Tommy wouldn’t stop talking. With every mile the wheels ate, my heart cooled. I couldn’t afford to have feelings anymore, I told myself. I’d been telling myself to stopper my emotions for years but they seemed to slip in at the worst times, betraying my fear and pain and eluding even my strongest efforts at total control. I breathed deep, pressing down on my emotions steadily. I too angry and for a moment the rage slipped out; I pretended to lunge at the girl next to me. She squeaked and threw herself against the window. I laughed harshly. I could feel my hate blaring from my eyes and in the dangerously uncontrolled tone of my voice. Sated, I returned to staring out the window.
Long after the headlights had been flipped on, Paul turned from the passenger’s seat and announced we had arrived. We swung open the doors and followed him. There wasn’t much to see.
A filthy lookout tower was positioned directly in front of us. As we trudged past, I heard small animals scrambling away from Paul’s flashlight. A woman exited a small metallic building to my left and greeted us. She introduced herself as Tina. A man followed her out and gestured to Tommy to follow him. I wondered how he could possibly have such a jaunt in his step as he strolled away with the man. Tina directed the younger girl to go and change into a new set of clothes inside. Once I was alone with Tina, she tiredly directed me to follow her to the side of the building.
There was a small slab of concrete occupying the ground at the end of the structure. She told me to stand on it. The Suburban blocking my view from the center part of the base camp, I hung my head. I knew what was coming; it was made far worse by the exposed feeling of being outdoors.
“Ok Skye. Let’s make this quick. Take your shirt off for me.”
Baffled, I looked up. I thought she was going to make me take everything off but my underwear, so why hadn’t she said so? Was she seriously only asking for my shirt to come off? I still didn’t like it; slowly removing my light blue long sleeved shirt, I maintained cautious eye contact with her. I reminded myself of a small animal closely watching a predator.
“Great! Now shoes and socks.”
Why was she calling out one piece of clothing at a time? Why didn’t she just search me? By the age of fifteen, I had enough program humiliation and abuse to feel the panic starting to bubble up. Strip naked outside? In front of this woman? I noted the windows in the tower that stood directly in front of me, wondering how many people were laughing on the other side of them. All wasn’t lost yet, I told myself. She hadn’t asked me to remove my bra or underwear yet. I stepped out of my pants.
“When I count to three, you’re going to take your bra and underwear off, put your arms straight out to your sides turn ten times in a circle.” Her voice echoed against the Suburban.
I saw red. Please, not this, I thought. Not outside; not here. I remembered the Christian home and how a time had come when they had finally held me down and forced my clothes off; it had been far worse than when I did it myself. I had to force myself to do this.
I don’t remember taking my underwear off. I remember spinning in a circle, nearly tripping in my panic. I stopped at nine circles, thinking I was done and Tina started shouting at me to hurry and keep going. I did one last turn and she threw a set of clothes at me. I fumbled to get them on, cursing my clumsiness in my efforts to instantly hide my exposed body.
I sat in the back of the Suburban again in khaki cargo pants, hiking boots and a faintly gray long sleeved shirt, feeling defeated. Once again, I didn’t feel human; to be forced to undress so often for strangers deepened my belief that I was more of a belonging than a person. My wants and desires were of no consequence; my voice and insistence that I wasn’t crazy were drowned out in testimonies from my parents. I had nothing; to me, strip searches told me I was nothing as well.
The young girl hadn’t been strip searched. She was going to a different section of this program than I: the children’s group. She was considered too young for such things as strip searching. I was assigned to a group of teen girls called B Group, but they explained I would be going through Orientation first. Tommy was gone. We drove in circles for another hour; I noticed we were constantly turning in the same direction on the dirt roads surrounded by nothing but desert scrub, and I guessed they were trying to disorient us so we didn’t run away. Finally, the Suburban rolled to a stop. Twisting in her seat, Tina instructed me to get out.
Stepping into the dirt, I gazed around, seeing nothing but small tent-like structures and sage bushes. The structures were loosely clustered roughly twenty feet from each other around a single, pitiful fire. No far from the small blaze was a campsite, where three huddled figures sat. One of them rose and began walking towards the Suburban to greet me. What was this place? I wondered.
Tina hefted open the back of the SUV and started pulling out an assortment of items. A huge white sheet of plastic, can of peaches, sleeping bag, thin roll-up mat, a woven white sack full of dry food goods and several canteens. As she passed the items to me, my arms filled and my knees buckled under the weight. She continued to pile more gear onto the small mountain I held as one of the distant figures arrived behind me.
“What’s your name, kid?”
His voice was playful, but I couldn’t tell if it was friendly or if it was the same tone a cat would use after catching a mouse.
“Skye.” I kept it simple. The less they knew, the better.
“One you get your stuff, follow me. I’m Tyler.”
He turned from me and began chatting with Tina as I tried to sift my over-sized armload to make room for the items piled around my buckling legs.
“We had pizza with the kids tonight and we’re just laying the bedrolls.” Tyler said in a suddenly loud voice to Tina, watching me out the corner of his eye.
“Perfect. And I’ll come get the laundry tomorrow!” Tina cheerily replied.
They seemed to share some odd laugh. I wondered what was funny about pizza and laundry. Wait, I thought. Pizza. My stomach suddenly erupted at the mention. Once I manage to heft all the gear, Tyler led me to a seemingly random place in the dirt, well away from any of the other lumps among the sage, He instructed me to unroll my sleeping pad and place my sleeping bag on top. I blanched, confused.
“Where are the tents though?” I asked.
Tyler threw back his head, giving a throaty laugh.
“With the laundry service and pizza of course. They’ll be here soon.”
Naively, I wondered when that would be. I unrolled the paper-thin pad and threw the sleeping bag over it; fumbling in the growing darkness. I moved in confusion; no one had told me quite was I had been gotten into yet. Once the sleeping bag was splayed across the mat, I turned back to Tyler.
“Great.” Tyler said, lifting the huge can of peaches Tina had given me.
Squatting down and setting the can on a small rock, he began to work away at opening it with a knife in the growing moonlight. I stood awkwardly, waiting and wondering what the can was for. I glanced around.
Low sage bushes dotted the mostly flat landscape for as far as I could see, and I breathed in the weedy scent permeating the air. I heard small animals scurrying around every time my new over-sized clothing rustled. What struck me more than even the presence of absolutely nothing, though, was the silence. The space surrounding the camp swallowed sounds, muting every voice yet somehow sharpening the distinct noise in my crackling footsteps and stiff clothing. I’d never been so far out in the middle of nowhere; this must be the place silence chose to be its home, I thought.
Cursing softly, Tyler finally managed to rip the top of the can off. He held the can up to me. I reached out and took it, looking at him questioningly. The smell of the peaches was odd in this setting, blocking out the smell of weeds.
“Eat those peaches before you go to bed. That’s going to be your molly can, so you don’t want to damage it.”
“Where are the forks?” I was confused, but I was too hungry to argue.
Tyler laughed that strange playful laugh again. His lean, tan frame bent and he handed me a single, dirty twig.
“In the next couple days you’ll make a spoon but for now it’s sticks or your hands.”
He wanted me to eat a pie-sized can of peaches straight out of the can with my hands. I blinked. I couldn’t eat so much.
“What do I do with the leftovers? Where’s the trash can?”
He laughed again.
“There won’t be any leftovers. Eat the whole thing. If I find you tried to hide or bury your food, I will make you dig it up and eat it out of the dirt. Understood? Then you go to sleep. Change into the long underwear and use the flipflops. One of the staff will come by to take your clothes for the night.” Tyler spoke evenly, no longer chuckling. He was all business and he certainly wasn’t kidding.
“Is the laundry service tomorrow? When do I get my clothes back?” I asked.
“There is no laundry service, kid. Make sure you keep your underwear clean because you’re going to be wearing them for at least a month. Probably closer to two months.” He was serious.
The course of the day had dumped too much new emotion and information on me; I didn’t process what he was saying. I didn’t know how safe this place was or if I would be able to get away, so I decided it was best for me to follow and watch unless things got out of control. I nodded and he left.
I sat on the sleeping bag trying to force the slimy peaches down my throat while looking at the moon. I heard the muted sobs of other teens in the camp, but they seemed overall to have their bearings. Once half of the peaches were gone, I was full. Staring down at the can, I remembered Tyler’s threat to make me eat them out of the dirt. Swallowing hard, I reached in and took another slice.
The peaches were gone; fighting the urge to vomit, I looked around again. I had to use the bathroom. Tyler was back at the main camp by the fire and another figure was walking from each small camp to another. Remembering I was supposed to change into long underwear, I rummaged around the mess of items strewn around me, eventually finding them. I slid into the sleeping bag, trying to not upset my stomach or aching bladder and quickly changed. As I pulled my pants up out of the bag I was in, the staff member arrived at my ‘camp’. She didn’t say much but held out her arm for my clothes and boots. I handed them to her from the bag, watching her with wide eyes.
“What do I do if I have to go to the bathroom?”
“Ask a staff member if you can go.” Her eyes glanced over me, uninterested, and she walked away.
I lay flat on my back staring at the full moon and remembering how the same complete orb had watched over every one of my runaway attempts. I wondered if it was a sign for me to run away; but I was too full and exhausted. I didn’t have anywhere to run to anyways, I realized.
I was afraid of what the staff would say if I told them I had to pee. My bladder stretched and strained, surely developing stretch marks, but I combated it with my fear. Finally I couldn’t hold it anymore. I didn’t want to tell anyone; I was sure it was in the wee hours, so I crept out of the bag, stepping in a finely thorned plant almost immediately. I squatted and watched in despair as the stream rolled almost immediately into my sad pile of belongings, but there were no other nearby spots where I could finish my business.
When I had finished I sat again on my sleeping bag, shivering in the cold. The thorns had broken off into my foot, burning the skin. I picked out as many as I could and gave up. I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
Lying back down in the dirt, I passed out again.
When I woke, the sun was just beginning to streak across the sky. I didn’t remember where I was and immediately began to panic. The camp looked different in the light; somehow it seemed even more wretchedly surreal. How was it, I wondered, that just the day before I’d been awakened in my own bed by my father?
There was a muted commotion. Glancing around, I noted the other kids were watching something happen. One of the staff members was standing atop the largest rock in the center of the camp, barking instructions into a radio. I signaled the kid in the camp nearest me, asking in a uselessly loud whisper what had happened.
“Someone ran away!” he replied in an equally pointless whisper. He seemed excited.
Maybe I could escape this place, I thought. Almost in a response to the little bud of hope on my heart, the green Suburban from the night before rumbled to a stop on the edge of camp. Tyler approached it, opening the doors and removing crutches. Perplexed, I watched a figure step from the driver’s seat and open one of the back doors.
A teenage boy sat inside. He had a cast running the length of one leg and braces on the other. They weren’t really going to make the kid stay here in his condition, were they? I wondered.
They helped him to an abandoned site and I realized he had already been here. My neighbors loudly whispered to me that he had tried to break both his legs to escape the camp. He had only succeeded in breaking one and they had brought him back. He said he had heard that once we were transferred to our permanent groups, we would be required to hike long distances in makeshift packs. We both looked on in fear; if this was how far this place would go to keep their students, maybe I should run away like the other kid did this morning, I thought.
Hours later the runaway was returned to the camp. He had been given bright orange clothes to wear for the rest of his time so he could be easily spotted. My weak hope crashed into the dirt beside me. Yet again, I was trapped.
TO BE CONTINUED….
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