Dirt. (part 2) Bless the Underwear

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If you haven’t read Part 1 of “Dirt.”, it will be important to do so first. Read it here.

With my eyes closed, lying on my back in the baking heat, I hummed to myself. I was in complete shock and found an odd solace in my senseless tune as I lay in the dirt. The hard, cracked ground beneath me teemed with bold mice, fire-ants and spiders, but it no longer mattered to me. So long as my eyes were closed, I could pretend I was still in a dream.

“SKYE. Did you hear me? Get your shit; You’re moving camps. I told you to make your bedroll already.” An angry male voice cracked through my tune and I sat up.

“Uh no. You told me someone would show me how to make a bedroll. I can’t make one if I don’t know how.” My response dripped in bold derision.

“Damn it. Alex, go help Skye roll her fucking bedroll.” The instructor turned to a boy who had tried to run away a few days earlier, now clad in bright orange clothing.

Scrambling to his feet, the boy named Alex scampered over to me. Most of the staff were dismissive, but the instructor who was yelling at us was reputably aggressive. Alex arranged my pitiful, dirty belongings along the thin white tarp I had been issued and showed me how to slowly roll them tightly up into a pack. Grabbing my bundle of hiking cord from a nearby sage bush, he wrapped ribs along the roll, holding it tightly in shape. Next, he unrolled the red seatbelt strap I had been given and worked them up and down through the ribs of the pack to form shoulder straps. Topping off the bedroll with my centimeter-thin sleeping mat, he squeezed my arm and scrambled back to his site without a word. I looked around.

Surrounded by makeshift shade shelters crafted from old rubber ponchos and sticks, I cast my gaze about, trying to figure out to which camp I was supposed to go to; aside from the pitiful structures with other teens scattered around, trying to hide from the relentless sun, I saw nothing. I heard a rumble of tires on the gravel road in the distance.

Another instructor shouted for me to grab my newly rolled pack and follow her. Seizing a shoulder strap, I tried to swing it up onto my back; it merely rolled over. I stared at it, aghast. How could I carry it? I wasn’t weak, but as I tugged on the straps a second time, I realized the pack was roughly half my weight.

The instructor shouted again, growing impatient as a green Suburban materialized in the distance, bellowing dust as it rumbled towards us. I glanced down at the pack again, torn. I had to survive; I was determined not to be beaten, and to admit that physically I was unable to do something was, to me, admitting defeat.Thinking quickly, I stood the pack upright. Sitting down, I scooted back into the bedroll, rolling my arms through the straps. Grunting, I pushed myself upright, grabbing a nearby bush for balance. Standing hunched over, barely balanced, I began to step heavily towards the instructor.

The first sensation I noticed was rubbing; the knots holding the pack ribs together chafed along my spine. As I tried to straighten, my back strained and my shoulders were wrenched back. Too much, I thought, forcing myself back into a hunched position. I hobbled slowly over to the instructor as the Suburban rolled up, engulfing us in a dust cloud and obliterating the press of silence on my ears.

Tina, the woman from a few days earlier who had strip-searched me, hopped out of the driver’s seat and opened the back hatch to toss my pack into. With great effort, I managed to heft it inside and then clambered into one of the seats. Slamming the door after me, the instructor I had come with turned and strode away. I gazed out the window over the scattered shelters and wondered if my next destination would be more habitable.

I vaguely knew where I was going: my assigned permanent group. I had learned a great deal about surviving the program after observing for several days. We were not permitted to speak to each other. I was required to drink a gallon and a half of water daily; every time I finished a canteen I had to shout to an instructor, hold the empty water bottle upside down over my head to indicate it was empty and they would mark off my progress. Two canteens had to be consumed before we ate at 6am, another two before lunch and the rest had to be finished before dinner. It had taken me less than ten hours from the time I finished the massive can of peaches to miss their sweet flavor. Breakfast was oatmeal and water; dense and flavorless, it stuck in my throat. The portions were far more than I could eat. During my first morning I had noticed some of the kids managed to eat by rolling balls of the thick oats, biting and chewing slowly. On occasion, the sounds of retching would echo through the camp and the aggressive male instructor would run over, forcing the unfortunate puker to scoop the food from the dirt and eat it again. Lunch was better; I received a single piece of white pita bread with nearly an entire jar of peanut butter slathered on top, along with seven dried apricots. After three days of peanut butter overload, I had begun to dread lunch as well. The greatest trial was dinnertime: We filled our emptied peach cans with a mixture of rice and lentils, and as usual the staff would check to see if we had filled the can enough. After adding water and boiling the mixture, we began to eat. The texture was sickening and the flavor was terrible; as each day passed more and more dirt and dust filled our food bags. When mealtime arrived, the food was heavily seasoned with the taste of the desert. There would be more more retching, more yelling and at least one kid scooping filthy rice and lentils from the dirt and eating it.

The days were long and baking hot; in the desert, the eerie silence permeated the air. I breathed in the strong scent of sage through the cracked window of the Suburban as it rolled deeper into the desert. It wasn’t long until another huddle of poncho-crafted shade shade shelters, centered around a much nicer tarp-covered camp came into view. The SUV rumbled to a stop. I had said nothing to Tina throughout the trip, and she had glanced many times behind at me with a sense of unease in her face. I imagined that usually students being moved from the orientation camp usually peppered Tina with anxious questions, but I no longer cared. I had already been through an abusive program, kept isolated and locked in my parents’ house for months and run away many times. My experience told me that any resistance or attempts to anticipate what was next were fruitless; I couldn’t protect myself.

As the Suburban rolled to a stop I saw another male instructor waiting beside the road. Expecting him to be much like the aggressive fellow from the orientation camp, I kept my head down, opening the back hatch of the SUV myself and affixing the straps of the pack to my shoulders. Looking around, I saw with relief that the campsite was scattered with tall, craggy rocks; perfect for shade. The sun was already fading behind the jagged rocks and I began to hope that perhaps the group had already eaten dinner. If I could catch a break and skip even one grueling meal, I would be ecstatic.

The instructor gently introduced himself as Parker and helped me lug my badly rolled pack to a spot he had selected for me to camp at. Though it was on a rocky hill, I saw the mercy in what he had done: seeing that I had no long sticks to prop my poncho up into a shade shelter, he had put me against a towering wall of rock. I would be able to use my hiking cord against the rock to tie my poncho against for shade. As we dropped the pack on the side of the hill, he reminded me to fill my “molly can” with the usual rice and lentils for dinner. At least I had caught a big break with a kind instructor, I thought.

I filled my can to the required line and carried it over to another instructor, a girl named Summer, to approve. Looking around at the other girls in the camp, I wondered how long they had been there. As I returned to my camp to add water to my can, I passed a thin girl whose strawberry-blonde hair was greased into strings. Her clothes looked nothing like mine, her shirt blackened in filth and pants ragged. A sense of horror tugged at me. That would be me soon, I realized. My roiling stomach knotted.

After dinner, I laid out my bedroll and prepared as much of my pack as I could; Summer had told me that in this permanent group called G-Group, we hiked five days a week and mornings were usually rushed. As I changed into my long underwear and flip flops, I looked at the stars and remembered how almost a year ago I had whooped with joy under the same pinpricks of light as I escaped my family’s house. They had certainly managed to contain me and lock me away, but my sixteenth birthday was quickly approaching and I knew all I had to do was survive for a little over two more years to be free.

Parker, the long-haired gentle instructor, came to my site to collect my clothing and boots for the night. I had expected him to rip them from my hands and leave wordlessly as the previous instructor had, but instead, he squatted by my side.

“Want some vitamin C?” he asked gently.

I rolled onto my stomach and propped myself up by my elbows.

“I guess. As long as it’s not rice, lentils, oatmeal or peanut butter.”

He laughed warmly. “Actually, it tastes good. They’re tablets. We call them desert candy out here.” He pulled a bottle from his pocket and shook out a small orange tablet, extending it to me on his open palm.

Taking it and tentatively setting on my tongue, I felt its flavor and sweetness warm my body. This guy had a gentle, caring heart, I realized. He wasn’t like the other guy.

“How long am I going to be here?” I asked carefully, but I couldn’t hide the hope and fear blending in my tone.

“Well, I guess it depends on you. There are three phases left in the program. Once you get through Individual phase, you can talk with the rest of the girls who are on Family Phase. After that you get moved to another group called Search and Rescue and then you graduate.” He answered as carefully as I had asked.

“How long does that take? When can I leave?” I couldn’t hide my desperation. The heat, the food were bad enough, but the silence pressing me into the thoughts I hated and feared was beginning to overwhelm me. I couldn’t get my father’s smug look out of my mind as he had sentenced me from one program to the next, declaring I was suicidal, violent and slanderous. How could my voice win over that of a seemingly kind, caring father’s? How could anyone see through the deception?

“Well, when you graduate depends on you. If you can build the traps, firedrill and finish the requirements while moving through the therapy, you can leave sooner rather than later.”

My heart sank. No therapist ever believed my stories and I could never figure out what they wanted me to say or do. I realized my best shot at getting out of the program lay in high performance and remaining happy and consistent.

Parker pointed at a blue binder that had been included in my gear.

“You get high school credits from finishing that and it will tell you all the rules an requirements for each phase. You can do this. Just stick with it. It’s hard but I’ll make sure you’re ok. For now, just focus on talking to your therapist, build your four stone-fall traps along with the other requirements and follow the rules. For the phase you’re on, you need to stay at your camp and you can’t talk to the other girls. Focus on you.”

Focus on me? I felt myself close off and settled back into my bedroll. He wished me good night and left.

I lay flat on my back, eyes wide open under the stars. What was this place? I could hear sniffles floating around the camp, broken periodically by the banter of nearby coyotes.

The next morning was far more confusing than expected. There was no chatter as the girls scraped oats, distributed gear and made bedrolls. Moving with lazy precision, sharp words and pressed under the silence, a straggling line of completed packs slowly formed.

I struggled to finish my meal and drink my waters, choosing instead to give them to the mice that had kept me company. I dragged my first attempt at a pack to the line and slumped down against the dirty white plastic. I had only heard whispers and side comments about the hikes required by the instructors, and they sounded like a true horror story. Thankfully, I numbly realized, I had endurance.

As the time rolled by in minutes, the insistence in the instructors’ voices grew, spreading to the girls who seemed to have been in the program the longest. Finally, we were ready. The instructors lined us up and we began to hike.

It wasn’t bad, I thought.

We plodded along, most of us bent over to some degree. I imagined with our white plastic packs that we looked like some horrible tapeworm from an aerial view. We scrunched along for what felt like five minutes and one of the instructors in the lead suddenly hollered for everyone to halt. We bumped to a stop and waited as silently as any well-whipped caravan.

“I can’t!” A wail slit the silence near the front of the line.

Leaning to the side while being careful not to tip too far, I caught snatches of the view between teetering bodies. one of the girls had plopped down hard on her butt, refusing to go any farther.

“Come on; again? This is going to take hours!” The more senior girls were already beginning to mutter before being clucked back into silence.

So began the hike.

It didn’t take me long to realize the most difficult part of hiking with several other teenage girls was the whining and the stops; every ten minutes or so we would stop in line. I tried to ignore the streams of sweat dripping into my eyes as the sun rose and gave its blistering opinion. Walk, wait, walk, wait. Finally, something interesting happened.

Though we hiked in a column, the group stopped and spread out around a point in the trail. Pushing past some of the girls to see what had caused the strange halt, my eyes settled on a large rattlesnake in the path.

The diamondback was reared back into a threatening pose. One girl, Angie, whimpered and passed out. I watched in fear and awe as the creature reared back and continued to rattle for a couple minutes before slithering off into the brush. We picked up our packs and carried on.

Somewhere in the painful blur of my rubbing pack, the dripping heat and the protesting screams of teenage girls without a shower, the hike finally ended. The staff spread across the area they had determined would be our site, choosing bedroll sites for each kid. I was less than lucky with my site; Parker had placed me next to a red ant hill roughly five feet in diameter.

I let my pack drop and tried not to buckle as it fell, hitting me behind the knees. Sitting on the white mass of knots and belongings, I surveyed my spot. It was time to figure out how to build an ant trap and a shade shelter. I seized my pack and began untying different items.

After roughly an hour of knotting, pulling and rearranging the massive poncho we were issued for shade, I’d figured it out: I had a shade shelter. I lay hidden from the sun, trying to drink my required water before it was time for dinner. Glancing around, I saw several kids with their blue curriculum books open. Taking their cue, I seized mine and tried unsuccessfully to drown my racing thoughts out line by line.

My father had flown me to this spot in the desert of Idaho; he had kept me confined to my room in the month leading up to my departure. The isolation, loss and grief of trying to make it through the previous six months caught in my throat. I’d jumped out of cars and windows, run away through blizzards and camped in woods and still, I’d been had. Glancing up from the unread pages of my book, I stared at a little mouse nosing the side of my pack. Even that mouse had the freedom to run, I thought.

I had been told to talk only to staff when needed and nothing more; asking questions about what was going to happen to me was far from my list of  opportunities. I’d been told I was going to receive an ‘impact letter’ from my parents telling me why they had put me here. I had little to no interest in getting or reading my letter, I thought to myself as I watched a kid holler to the staff that they had finished their water canteen. I knew no one had missed my disappearance; no one had called to find out what had happened to me when I had disappeared from school months earlier. It was safe for me to assume, I suddenly realized, that I truly was disposable and forgotten. The only people who knew where I was were the ones pulling the strings, I realized. A rock dropped into the bottom of my stomach

It was dinner. As I refilled my canteens and prepared my rice and lentils, Summer began making general information announcements to the twelve other girls. I brought my can to the center of camp for approval, catching her notice.

“And I completely forgot to tell you all that we have a birthday in G-group today! Skye turned 16 today!” My eyes widened. It was my birthday?

The girls all cheered and broke into a truly ragged happy birthday. I stared, more shocked than anything that I hadn’t realized it was my birthday. Parker smiled, placing his hand on my shoulder and telling me I was permitted to talk and eat with the rest of the group over dinner.

Though the rice and lentils tasted no better, they disappeared painlessly as I laughed and talked with other teenage girls for the first time in close to six months. Lined in every crevice with black dirt, the girls had lost all pretense. One heavyset girl named Rose was especially hilarious. Having come to the camp a month earlier, she had lost close to fifty pounds and was quickly approaching a healthy weight. The camp had made a special clothing exception for her and had issued her new pants- her mother had been in charge of sending new underwear. As Rose pulled the underwear from an envelope, they fell open and we all burst into tearful laughter: the underwear was large enough to fully clothe a baby elephant. I looked over, wiping tears of mirth from my eyes to see one staff member whittling something and the rest rolling over, laughing with the rest of us.

Angie, another girl, knew exactly what to do with the whitey tighties: Grabbing a long stick and some cord, she fastened the underwear to the stick as a flag. Laughing uncontrollably, she farted and a puff of Gold Bond shot out behind her. It was too much even for Summer and Parker. The staff member I had seen whittling something approached; she had made me a simple necklace with three handmade beads for my birthday. I stared at the gift, stunned.  Id been through a few programs already, but never had the staff been kind like this. As I let her tie the necklace on, the rest of the group burst into a song they had written about the underwear serenely billowing out over our pitiful camp:

God bless the underwear
the pair I can’t wear
It’s big and giant, and flying
through the air
it’s the pair I don’t wear

God bless the underwear
my only pair
over butt cheeks, over GoldBond
over anything I can wear
God bless the underwear
my only pair

Dark had fallen and many of us had felt the fatigue of the day hit. Though the rest of G-group still had to do their nightly Truth Circle meeting, I was sent back to my bedroll to prepare for the next day’s slog. I tore down my shade shelter, carefully laying it out as a barrier to the red ants’ nest beside me.

Maybe I could do this, I thought. Maybe even out here, in the middle of nowhere with total strangers, I could matter more than I’d been permitted to before. I was allowed to have friends here, I realized. I slipped into my sleeping bag, putting my boots and gear out for staff to collect like they did every night.

The staff member who had given me the necklace came around eventually. Her name was Corrina, I had learned. Corrina was in her late 30’s with a mischievous, weathered smile. She had a tattoo on her left forearm of an eerie full moon that had caught my attention every time I had spoken to her.

“Do you have desert candy?” I asked, not hiding the hope from my voice for the vitamin C treat.

“Sure! Who calls it that? That’s a funny name.” Corrina popped open the vitamin container, thinking out loud.

“Parker called it that. I thought everyone called it that.” I replied, blushing from my bedroll.

“You know what kid? You’re going to do well here. We like you lots.” She studied my face as she spoke. I was unable to hide my surprise. I hadn’t been told any of those things in so long I hadn’t thought them possible.

“You’re really cool Corrina. I’m going to get a tattoo like yours one day and make farts as funny as you do.” I turned an even deeper shade of red as my outburst escaped.

“No you won’t kid! In ten years you won’t remember me, and that’s the point. I’m just one of the hundreds of people you’re going to meet that will each help you get a little better after everything.” She deftly scooped up my boots as gear as she spoke and turned to leave.

“Night Skye. You’re worth it.”

I lay on my back, tracing out the different stars and galaxies and thinking. I was 16 and I hadn’t realized it. This camp was definitely not an especially safe place, but maybe it was still much better than what I knew. I didn’t know much about what people and the world was like outside of the closed circle I’d been raised in, but maybe I was going to be ok. I drifted off.

I awoke the next morning on my own; no one had brought me gear. I groaned and sat upright; the ants had gotten through my barrier and crawled all over me. Looking to the center of camp, something seemed off. A cluster of staff surrounded one of the girls, laid out on the ground. One other staff member had climbed a nearby cliff and could be seen speaking urgently into a radio.

I picked out the other girls of G-group, trying to figure out who lay on the ground in the center of camp. Noting they were remaining at their individual sites, I did the same, watching.

A Suburban rolled into the enclave we had occupied for the night, stopping this time in the center of camp. Dust bellowed from the wheels, overtaking the center of camp and hiding it from view. I heard more shouting, the slam of car doors and in less than a minute, the vehicle roared back through the encampment, and out into open desert.

We watched in silence as the clouds of dust cleared and the Suburban grew into a faint pinprick. Someone was either dead or close to it from our group. My head spun. A few of the girls had violent tendencies, but a few had also been ill. Several more had faked illness or injury already but were easily flushed out. My stomach twisted.

Was I safe?

 

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