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Authors: Trish Cook

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BOOK: A Really Awesome Mess
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There was a truck stop. And then some more corn. And a little more corn. And then, between two cornfields, a small road and a wooden sign that said, “Heartland Academy. A Caring Place.”

We drove for at least two minutes on this little road before I saw Heartland Academy looming in the distance. It was an old, creepy-looking building. The windows were arched, the walls were stone, and there were acres and acres of short grass lawns surrounding it.

I guess it was pretty good proof against escape: Even if you got out of the building, you had to walk for several minutes across lawns with no cover. And once you did that, there was nothing but corn for miles and miles.

Slayer was in my earbuds screaming about the angel of death. I wasn’t a huge metalhead or anything, but it just seemed kind of appropriate as we approached the place I was going to be spending the next … well, Mom and Patrick were a little unclear about the length of time. “We’ll check in regularly and see how you’re doing,” was all that Mom would give me.

Patrick stopped the rental car, but I didn’t open my door. I wasn’t going to make them drag me in, but I was damn sure not gonna make this easy for them. Patrick popped the trunk and
grabbed my suitcase, and Mom opened the door. A wave of Midwestern heat and humidity fell on me like a wet blanket. I saw Mom’s mouth moving, but I had Slayer going too loud to hear what she was saying.

Then Mom did something pretty unlike her: She reached down and yanked my iPod cord, ripping the earbuds out of my tender ears.

“Ah, God, Mom, what the hell!” I yelled.

“You listen to me,” she said. “I know you’re not happy about this. I’m not happy about this either. But that does not mean you’re going to be awful to me. I’m trying”— and there were tears in her eyes, which made me feel bad, but I wasn’t giving in that easy—“I’m trying to get you some help. It’s hard for both of us, but I need you to be safe and I don’t know how to do that at this point. And as hard as it is for me to live with sending you here, it would be impossible to live with you actually succeeding in killing yourself. That’s what being a mom is about, Justin. You do anything to protect your kids. This is the only thing I know how to do right now.”

And she was still crying, and I felt like a toad, or anyway something really low and disgusting. I was still pissed, but I got out of the car and decided to walk willingly through the heavy wooden front doors.

The words
Miss Doherty’s Home for Wayward Girls
were engraved in the stone at the entrance. I was at the point of turning
to Mom and making a joke—“Wayward girls? Hot!”—before I walked inside, but then I remembered I was mad at her and this joke probably wouldn’t help my case that I didn’t have sexual issues, so I didn’t say anything.

A middle-aged, slightly chubby woman came out of the office to greet us. “Welcome,” she said.

“Are you Miss Doherty?” I asked.

She gave me a smile in return. Not even the annoyance I was hoping for. “You must be Justin,” she said. “Come on in, and we’ll go over the rules and the treatment program.”

She walked us through another wooden door into the office, which was nowhere near as old and gothic and creepy as the outside of the building. The walls were a soothing pale yellow, with colorful landscapes and pictures of flowers.

She steered us to a comfy couch where we awkwardly moved around, trying to figure out who should sit next to whom. We ended up with Mom in the middle, flanked by me and Patrick. Mom held Patrick’s hand with her left and reached out for mine with her right, but she didn’t get it.

Seated across from us in one lushly upholstered chair and three plastic classroom chairs were “Miss Doherty,” who hadn’t introduced herself, a young guy with a Moses beard and a Band of Horses T-shirt, an old guy with an awesome gray mustache, and a young woman who might be pretty if she had better clothes and hair and makeup.

“So,” Miss Doherty said, “I am Helen Campbell, executive director of Heartland Academy. This,” she said, gesturing at the old guy, “is Jack, who runs the SR group”—I didn’t know what that was—“Tina,”—the plain young woman—“who runs Anger Management, and Max,”—Band of Horses Guy—“who’ll be Justin’s primary therapist and treatment director.”

“What’s up?” he said, extending a hand to me.

“I get it. You’re the young, cool one who I can really open up to because you dig the kids of today. Am I right?”

He wouldn’t take the bait and get mad. What the hell was it with these people anyway?

He kept his hand extended. “You know, it’s rude to leave somebody hanging when they want to shake your hand,” he said.

“You don’t say,” I said, keeping my arms folded across my chest.

Mom elbowed me in the ribs and hissed, “Justin!” under her breath.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Helen Campbell said. “This is a stressful time, and we’re pretty used to new students acting out. I’m sure you’ve been over the handbook by now”—Mom went over it, but I’d tuned out when she was talking and definitely didn’t look at it on my own—“so let me just go over the highlights.”

The “highlights” of the rules took, no shit, forty-five minutes to go through. There was a six-level system here. I would be starting at level one. When I got to six I’d get to go home. Not because
I’d be fixed, but because I’d have achieved, apparently, “balance and wholeness.”

No going into anybody else’s room. Ever. No sexual contact with anybody. They didn’t mention whether that included yourself, but they had staff members randomly strolling into your room whenever they felt like. Unclear what happened if you were tugging one out at the time. I didn’t ask.

Real classes from 8:00-1:00, therapy bullshit all afternoon, then supervised study hall, “recreation time,” which included no Internet and no TV, since pretty much anything on TV or in a movie was a trigger for somebody.

So, to sum up: No fun, creepy hippies watching my every move, and I had to talk about shit I’d rather not talk about pretty much every day.

In other words, I was in hell.

Finally the intake meeting ended, Mom and Patrick left, and a colossal guy who introduced himself as Tiny and didn’t say another word walked me to my dorm room at Heartland Academy. And no, I did not give my mom a hug good-bye, because the hell with her.

First, Tiny rifled through my luggage, during which a 16G USB drive full of top-shelf porn was confiscated, and then there was a strip search, which involved a finger where no finger should be, at least not one attached to a gigantic linebacker-looking guy named Tiny. Finally, he took my laptop away for “virus removal,”
which I guess meant “de-pornification.” I’d be allowed to use it for class-related word processing and PowerPoint purposes and nothing else. So no games, no Internet, nothing. It was basically going to be a fancy typewriter.

When we got to my room on the third floor, my roommate was sitting next to the gigantic window, which was helpfully covered in suicide-prevention bars. He didn’t introduce himself. He was black, and very dark-skinned, and to judge by the people we saw in the airport and on the drive here, the only black person in, like, a hundred mile radius.

“I’m Justin,” I said. He didn’t acknowledge me. “So what are you in for?” I asked.

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean, why are you at Heartland Academy? Did you try to off yourself? Drug problem? OCD?”

“None of your fucking business why I’m here,” he said.

“I tried to kill myself. Tylenol. And my dad walked in on what should have been a wonderful blow job. From a chick. I should point that out. And I failed all my classes last year and I’m pretty much an asshole.”

My roommate didn’t say anything. “And I guess I’m not the only one,” I said.

It was only four thirty. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I couldn’t seem to manage that, so I just hung out on my bed and stared up at the ceiling until they called us for dinner.

“SO WHAT CLASSES ARE YOU TAKING THIS QUARTER?” THE LADY
in the green sweatshirt with
Staff
embroidered on it asked as she ran her hands down my sides, around my legs, over my back.

The question barely registered. To try and get my mind off the awkward situation, I was busy wondering whether
Staff
was her last name or the position she held at this godforsaken place; how I was going to get my parents to bust me out of here for Simon’s Rock by September; and what in hell I was going to do to distract myself from the growling hunger pains in my stomach. At home, I would’ve just worked out on our basement exercise equipment or drank a million Diet Cokes or both.
Here, it seemed neither was going to be available to me.

“Huh?”

“Classes start tomorrow, and they usually offer fun electives during the second summer term. So I was wondering what you were taking,” she said, handing me my regular clothes. “I’ll wait right outside the door. Let me know when you’re dressed.”

As soon as she left, I balled up the hospital gown and chucked it in the corner, then grabbed my jeans and pulled them on. They slid over my thighs and butt really easily, making me smile for the first time all day. I’d just bought them a few weeks back, to celebrate the momentous occasion of
finally
fitting into a size zero. Somehow, though, hitting the big milestone hadn’t been nearly as satisfying as I’d imagined, so now I had my sights set on a chic double zero.

“Ready!” I called once I’d buttoned my jeans and pulled a plain black T-shirt over my head.

Ms. Staff came back and started digging through my duffel bag like we were at the airport and she’d seen something sketchy on the X-ray machine at security. She put most of my outfits—but not all—into one pile, while personal grooming items like razors, scissors, and tweezers went in another. I assumed this was to make it easier for me to put my stuff away in the appropriate places when she was done. Wherever that might be. “So, classes?” she asked again.

I stuck my hand into the front pocket of my jeans and
rummaged around for the schedule the head of school had given me in orientation. My hip bone poked into my palm as I pulled out the small, folded-up piece of paper, giving me a cheap little thrill. Not because it felt good—it didn’t, the bone was actually sharp enough to really hurt—but because it meant I must be getting closer to my goal. I figured if I could just lose a little more weight, I’d stop hating my body so much—like my thighs, which rubbed together repulsively when I walked, or my belly, which folded over the top of my underwear in a heinous roll when I sat down.

“Uh, let’s see. I have The Contemporary American Family … Women and the Media … and Body Politics,” I said, reading the names of my classes off. “Oh, and yoga. Nope, nothing fun. Some girl next to me had
CSI
Science on her schedule. I totally could’ve gone for that one.”

“They generally put students in the classes that will help them the most,” the lady said, still feeling around inside my bag like she expected to discover hidden Baggies of pot, a bottle of Jack, and maybe a vibrator in there. I hated to disappoint, but she wasn’t going to find a thing: Pot led to the munchies, so for obvious reasons it was out; ditto for alcohol, which was full of empty calories; and I’d been doing just fine in the guy department, so no need for any autoerotica. Or at least I
thought
I’d been doing fine in the guy department, until a few months ago. “So can you figure out why those particular classes were chosen for you?”

I contemplated my schedule again. I didn’t think anything on it would be a help to anyone unless they were planning on becoming a total feminazi. And I wasn’t. “Not so much,” I said, then added, “So the girl with the purple hair who gets to go on field trips to the morgue … are they trying to stop her from becoming a serial killer? Or is she already one?”

Staffie just laughed, leaving me to worry that maybe I’d been right.

“Come on, you can tell me,” I said. “Seriously, I need to know if I should avoid her in the caf or whatever.”

She provided me exactly zero answers and one pile of clothes. “You can put these in your dresser now.”

I stared at the smaller pile she hadn’t handed me. It consisted of tank tops and belly shirts and short-shorts, all of which I could finally wear without feeling too horribly self-conscious. “What about those?”

“They’re against the dress code,” she said with an apologetic smile. “We’ll put them in storage and your mom and dad can bring them home after Family Weekend, along with these.” She pointed to my personal grooming items.

“But how am I going to shave … or tweeze my eyebrows … or cut my nails?” I asked. This place was getting more insane by the second.

“You can use a home-waxing kit instead of shaving, and go to the nurse when you want to trim your nails. She keeps clippers in
her office,” she told me. “Honestly, you’re here to get better, not find a date to the prom. You’ll be working so hard on yourself, you won’t care that your legs are a little hairy.”

“That is so … so … demeaning!” I sputtered. “What good could it possibly do to treat us like such babies?”

“Think of it this way,” she said, putting a gentle but firm hand on my shoulder and steering me toward my dresser. “Babies need help learning how to navigate the world without hurting themselves or others. The same holds true for our students.”

BOOK: A Really Awesome Mess
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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