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Authors: Trish Cook

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BOOK: A Really Awesome Mess
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So things being the way they were, not only did I not want more time for that call to ’rents, I was totally dreading the awkward, guided conversation we were supposed to have during it. I’d been informed my goal for the required weekly report to Mom and Dad was to clearly and calmly communicate my progress in three key areas: Academic, therapeutic, and social. It was going to be totally weird, following a script like we were business associates instead of people who actually knew each other. It seemed like just another way my parents were cutting ties with me. Even thinking about it hurt.

“I know I sort of agreed to this all at breakfast yesterday, but I decided last night there’s nothing in this deal for me,” I said, after gagging down five thousand bites of melon, scrambled eggs with spinach, and toast. I could practically feel cellulite forming on my thighs and ass as I chewed, and had to take deep breaths to make sure I didn’t actually barf on anyone again—especially since the consequence for my unexpected puke was having a Staffie accompany me every time I went to the bathroom. I think the words Tina used when setting this up were, “We’re onto you.” So much for empathy from the therapists in this place.

“You know what’s in it for you? Not pissing me off,” Mohammed offered, the dark cloud that always seemed to be brewing
around him bigger and more threatening than ever.

“Not a big motivator either. Sorry.” I shot him a big smile to show how unafraid of him I was.

“Hey Emmy,” Justin said, back to being his nice self and not the dickhead who’d mocked the way I ate and panted over the mere thought of porn. “I think I can make it worth your while.”

“I doubt it, but try me.”

“How about me, Mohammad, and Chip finish off the food you don’t want to eat?” he said, tossing it off like it was no big deal, eliminating eight jillion calories from my daily intake. I would have cut off my arm to get this kind of perk. “Sound good, guys?”

They looked at each other, then back at me, and nodded.

“Tempting. But I’m not so sure we could make it work,” I said, having to bite my tongue to keep from screaming
Yes! Yes! Yes!
My strategy: Play it cool and see if anyone was willing to up the ante. Might as well get as much out of my power position as possible.

“We’ll make it work,” Mohammed said, glancing around to make sure no one else was listening. “I’ve been here long enough to know when it’s cool. Deal?”

“I really don’t want to get caught …” I trailed off. And I really didn’t. But I also didn’t want to get fat again even more. Still, it wasn’t as tough a call as I was making it out to be. It wasn’t like I could go down any levels, and that being the case demerits were pretty meaningless.

Everyone stared around at each other, like
What do we do now?
Finally, Jenny started scribbling in her notebook. She hadn’t spoken since those six little words in the puke group
—Wilbur was the coolest pig ever
—and based on the silence that filled our room all the time, I didn’t expect her to anytime soon. When she’d finished writing, she ripped out the page and handed it to me.

I won’t tell if you exercise in our room at night after lights-out

That was part two of the consequence Tina had given me. After dinner most days, kids had the option of going to the rec center. Not me anymore, though, at least for the foreseeable future. No exercise plus bathroom supervision basically added up to hell on earth. And these guys had just given me an out.

I hesitated a second more, then totally caved. “Okay, you got me,” I said, a goofy grin taking over my face.

Justin and Chip high-fived, Diana gave me the devil horns, and Jenny almost—almost—cracked a smile back at me. As for Mohammed, every time he knew no one important was looking, he knocked lightly on the table and I’d quickly shovel little mountains of food onto the boys’ plates. Whenever I got rid of some eggs or a chunk of glistening buttered toast, an iota of misery melted away with it. Sure, I was still left with the stubborn ache of loneliness and crappy knowledge that I’d been abandoned again. Hey, I’d take whatever small comfort I could get here.

Then it was off to class. Body Politics was first. I hadn’t
noticed it before, but the room seemed divided into sections: Skinny-minnies on the right, chunky monkeys on the left. I chose a seat next to one of the skinny-minnies.

“You new here?” the girl asked me. She kind of reminded me of Joss with her freckles and blond ponytail. I mean, if Joss, who was an athlete, had been thirty pounds lighter. This girl had a total supermodel figure—giraffe legs, stick thin arms, flat belly and boobs, prominent collar bones. If she weren’t being so friendly, I would’ve hated her for being so perfect.

“Is it that obvious?” I asked.

“That’s kind of how it works,” she explained. “Kids tend to hang out here based on what level they are. Most of the people around us are on levels one and two, with maybe a few threes thrown in. I’m Colbie, by the way. Level two. Been here a month now.”

“How can you tell the kids over there are on the upper levels?” I imagined some sort of merit badge or pin I hadn’t noticed yet.

Colbie gave me a knowing look, rolled her eyes, and puffed out her cheeks. I burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me? It’s like a factory farm in this place,” she explained. “They force-feed everyone who’s the slightest bit thin until they get obscenely plump and juicy, and then you’re kind of cooked, you know? They send you home so fat you don’t want anyone to see you, so you never go out. And then your parents think you’re totally fixed, like
Isn’t that sweet! My teenager wants to spend Friday night on the couch
watching movies me with me! Wasn’t Heartland just so great for her?
And meanwhile, you’re all like
Shoot me now, I’m a cow

I scrunched up my nose. “So how can you stop it from happening?”

Colbie shrugged helplessly. “You can’t! I’ve gained, like, ten pounds since I got here. I’m already a total heifer and it’s just going to get worse!”

“Really?” I asked, horrified. Ten pounds in one month, times however many months kids got stuck here, had to be the scariest, meanest, most unfair punishment imaginable.

Colbie nodded sadly. “I mean, I’ll do whatever I have to to get out, but the minute I get home, I’m on a starvation diet until all the weight comes off. Period, end of story.”

I felt sorry for her and her inevitable porking out.

And happy for me that thanks to Justin, Mohammed, and Chip, I was going to be the only kid in the history of Heartland who managed to avoid becoming one of the factory farm girls on the other side of the room.

knew somebody was. The only person who could be reasonably ruled out was Mohammed. He was really good—scarily good, actually—at keeping things under wraps. I guessed that was a skill you developed when you watched one of your parents murdered in front of your eyes.

So that left me, with my smart mouth and low tolerance for bullshit; Emmy, who couldn’t stand food; Chip, who was at least as much of a dick as me, since we’d already thrown down once; Jenny, who was so fragile it was like she might crack and turn to a pitiful pile of dust at any second; and Diana, who was a violent psycho.

Of course, as Mohammed’s three assault convictions showed,
he was kind of a violent psycho himself, and actually much scarier than Diana because he hid it better. Which meant there was no way I was mouthing off to some authority figure and risking sharing a room with a guy who knew revenge was a dish best served cold. And it got cold in the middle of the night out here in the heartland.

So, in the end, it was Diana, who probably figured as a thirteen-year-old girl who looked like a ten-year-old, she’d be most immune from Mohammed’s revenge, that snapped. After an entire week with nobody getting in trouble, we could almost taste the upcoming rewards. And then, twenty minutes away from our deadline, Diana went apeshit in the cafeteria when she thought that someone cut in front of her in line. It took Tiny and one other similarly huge staff guy to restrain her.

Which meant everyone arrived at group in a really foul mood. Mohammed looked like he might kill somebody. I did not want to sit next to him, or really, within about a half mile of him. Neither, apparently, did anybody else, so he got the couch all to himself with the rest of us on beanbag chairs or, in my case, a hard plastic chair because Tina indicated that my sharing a beanbag chair with Emmy would be a no-no. Surprisingly, Emmy looked kind of bummed about that. Even more surprisingly, I kind of was, too.

“So,” Tina said to start the group. “The first thing I want to say is that I don’t want you guys to look at this as a failure.”

Nobody said anything, though you could read “yeah, right, lady” on pretty much everyone’s face.

“I mean, okay, you guys did not earn the reward you were after, but look at what you did accomplish. Justin, did you think at this time last week that you’d go a whole week without losing

I shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Emmy, you’ve made tremendous progress this week.” As if on cue, Chip let out a belch that was almost certainly fueled by the beef taco he scooped off of Emmy’s tray when Mohammed knocked on the table.

“ ‘Scuse me,” Chip said, and Emmy looked like she was ready to take him down.

“And even Diana, who faced some challenges today, had her best week ever.” Tina smiled at Diana. Diana scowled back.

Then Mohammed spoke. “I’m sorry, Tina, but it’s really hard for me to hear about how these rich privileged kids had such great weeks, and all I want to do is talk to my mom to see if my cousins are still

“Now, I don’t think I can allow you to—” Tina began.

“Will you put a fucking sock in it already?” Diana spat in Mohammed’s direction. He looked scarier than he ever had and glowered at her. If this were a cartoon, there would have been a lit fuse coming out of the top of his head. “I mean, get the hell over yourself. You’re always so goddamn self-righteous about how
you have important problems and the rest of us are just spoiled rich kids. But here’s the thing. You’re here. You are at Heartland Academy, which is not cheap. Tina, do you guys give scholarships to this hellhole?”

“Well, you know, Heartland Academy strives to provide a really intense therapeutic—”

And Emmy cackled. “That means no!” she laughed.

“Right,” Diana continued. “So somebody is fronting a hell of a lot of money to put your grumpy ass in that seat. So that ‘I’m just a poor African thing’ is bullshit. I bet you there are people still in whatever toilet you come from who have to just live with the shit they saw and don’t get a high-priced therapeutic setting to work out their issues. Right? So who the hell are you to judge anybody?”

I looked to Tina, who really ought to have put a stop to this. I was kind of afraid that Mohammed was going to kill Diana. But Tina just put on her “I’m a concerned, but disinterested party to this dispute” face, and we all stared at Mohammed.

“How I am able to be here is none of your—”

“Yeah, but see, it is our business,” Diana said. “Because you’re happy to throw your personal business in our faces as long as it makes you feel better than us. But now you want some privacy? Please.”

Mohammed glowered some more. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
Jenny not-too-subtly scooted her chair a few inches away from him. But Diana looked him right in his closed eyes, daring him to snap. It was like she actually wanted to throw down.

Mohammed had four years, ten inches, and probably eighty pounds on Diana, and yet I really didn’t know who I would pick to win.

“Ten bucks on Diana,” Emmy whispered to me.

“You’re on,” I said. I had just bet on a seventeen-year-old boy to beat up a thirteen-year-old girl. I suspected this was probably wrong.

Fortunately I didn’t have to face down the issue of feeling bad for winning ten bucks on an uneven fight or, you know, losing ten bucks, because this was where Tina stepped in. “Diana, we’ve all got a right to keep some things private. Nobody has any obligation to disclose their financials to you. And you,” she said, gesturing at Mohammed, “I am so proud of you. I can see how angry you are right now, and I just—you have made so much progress since you got here, and I just want you to know that I see that and honor it.”

Tina’s eyes were moist. I rolled my eyes and caught Emmy’s eyes, which were also rolling. Nobody said anything for a minute. Which stretched into two. Which stretched into five, and then it was really, really awkward.

Tina was the first one to break the silence. “So,” Tina said. “We’ve got another thirty minutes. Do you guys want to say anything, or are we just going to sit here?”

“I wanna play a game!” Diana said, and everybody groaned, probably picturing a torturous round of Sorry or Monopoly.

“Well, Diana, what game would you like to play?”

“The ass game!”

“Uh, Diana, I’m not sure what that is, but I don’t think—”

“Substitute ass for heart in any song title. Go!” She pointed at Emmy.

BOOK: A Really Awesome Mess
3.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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