It was hard for Mallory to control the shaking, but she decided she wouldn't throw up again. She wouldn't give the instructor the pleasure.
The instructor's assistant, a young blond dude, started yelling at Mallory, too—“Get over here! Get off your butt and get on this line!” But that was just background noise. Mallory knew the real threat was right in front of her.
She looked up, just so she wouldn't have her face in puking position.
The black guy hadn't gotten any prettier. He was huge—maybe not as tall as Chadwick, but wide, built like a tank, black T-shirt and camo pants and combat boots like a character from one of those arcade games Race liked.
She imagined Race pointing a blue plastic gun at this guy, the instructor's head exploding on the video screen. Race giving her a warm bright smile, saying, See? Ain't nothing.
The thought made her feel a little better.
“I've got all day,” the black guy said. “All day and all night.”
Mallory looked at the other three kids. They'd already given up. They were standing on the line, holding their supplies. The fat girl had mascara streaks down her cheeks from crying.
The assistant instructor was pacing behind them, yelling in their ears whenever they moved or muttered or looked in a direction he didn't like. The boy who'd said the F-word had a gag taped in his mouth—a goddamn gag.
Screw that, Mallory thought. Screw her mother for sending her here.
There was no way her mother could've known what this place was like. No way a gag was legal. If she could get to a phone, she could call her mom. She'd thought of that in the airport, but Chadwick always seemed to know what she was thinking. He'd been too hard to get away from. Maybe this black guy wasn't as smart as Chadwick.
Finally, one of the other kids yelled at her, “Get up, Zedman!”
For the first time, the assistant instructor didn't shut the kid down, didn't even act like anyone had spoken.
“I ain't standing here all day for you!” the kid yelled. He was the overweight guy—the one with the acne and the greasy hair. “GET——UP!”
Hell with him, Mallory thought.
But Mallory had a new thought—maybe she should play along. Pretend. If she did, it would be easier to get to a phone. One call to her mother, and she could swallow her anger long enough to apologize, cry a little, tell her what this place was like. Her mom would cave in. She'd bail her out. Mallory knew she would. And then Mallory could run away again—only this time, she wouldn't be found.
Mallory tried to get to her feet. It wasn't easy. Her head was spinning and her legs felt like bendy-straws.
She was standing, but she wasn't going to look at the black guy. No way.
“Zedman!” the black guy yelled.
Mallory muttered, “Here.”
The black guy's feet crunched gravel. “Here, sir.”
Mallory bit back some cuss words. She concentrated on Race. She had to get back to Race. “Here, sir.”
“I've heard kindergarteners louder than that. Are you a kindergartener?”
Mallory was crying, but she didn't care. She just hoped she'd broken the bastard's eardrums.
“Fall in, Zedman.”
Mallory staggered toward the line, stopped halfway, doubled over. The world thickened like maple syrup around her—everybody staring at her, waiting for her to die.
The instructors' eyes looked like her father's—cold disapproval, her last argument with Daddy, his insistence, If you don't keep away from him, I will make him stay away. I can't stand this anymore, Mallory.
She finally managed to get in line. She held out her arms and the assistant instructor shoved a bundle at her. He yelled orders until she was standing straight, holding her stuff with her elbows at a 45-degree angle, forearms level to the ground. The bundle wasn't that heavy, but standing there at attention, her arms got sore quickly.
The assistant instructor ripped the gag off the guy who'd cussed.
“I say, Eyes front,” the black dude bellowed, “you say, Sir. And you are looking at me. Eyes front!”
“Sir,” they all said.
“Pathetic. EYES FRONT!”
The black dude was getting off on his power trip, bullying little kids. It occurred to Mallory that one of these instructors might actually hit her. The idea sank in like the prick of a heroin needle—painful, but salty, pleasant in a sick way. Mallory would be able to show her bruises in court. She'd laugh when this place was shut down and all of these blowhards were dragged off to jail.
Just pretend a little while, she told herself. Just get to a phone.
“Ladies and gentleman,” the black guy said, “this is Cold Springs Academy. My name is Dr. Hunter. I own and direct this facility. While you are here, I direct you.”
He didn't say, I own you, but that's what Mallory heard.
“You are now part of Black Level,” Hunter said. “You are holding two sets of black fatigues, two pairs of underwear, one pair of shoes, one blanket, one bar of soap, one roll of toilet paper, and one toothbrush. Everything else—all other privileges—must be earned. Every rule must be followed. You will not advance from Black Level until you show that you have earned the right to do so. Is that understood?”
Mallory muttered, “Yes, sir.”
Of course, not everybody did, so they had to say it again, yelling, “YES, SIR!”
“Run in place,” Hunter said. “NOW!”
You've got to be joking, Mallory thought.
But the assistant instructor was yelling in her ear: “MOVE IT! KNEES UP! RUN!”
Mallory tried. She was sure she looked like a damn fool, holding this crap and jogging, feeling like she was going to puke.
Soon she was sweating, wishing she'd taken off her jacket. The air was cool, even cooler than back home, but it was drier, too. It burned her mouth and nose. The pain in her gut was unbearable.
Hunter called, “Halt!”
The second instructor was at the end of the line, yelling at the kid who'd had his mouth gagged earlier. The kid had thrown his supplies on the ground and kicked them away.
“I'm leaving!” the kid yelled. He had spiky hair, unnaturally yellow, and with his face all red and angry his whole head looked like a big match.
“F—” The kid stopped himself, remembering the gag. “Forget your Black Level. You can't make me stay here.”
Match-Head started storming off, but quickly he realized he didn't know what direction to storm off in.
They were in the middle of a clearing about the size of a volleyball court, surrounded by scrubby woods. Workout equipment was scattered around—a balance beam, a tire obstacle course, a couple of cinder block walls of various heights. The only road led toward the big ski lodge–type building they'd passed on the way in, and that was a good quarter mile away. The van that had dropped them off was gone. The horizon was nothing but low puke-colored hills in all directions. Mallory knew from Chadwick that this place was somewhere in Texas—the absolute middle of nowhere.
Match-Head started to stomp up the road, then stopped in his tracks. A third staff member had appeared in front of him, like he'd been waiting in the woods. The new guy was holding something that looked like a canvas pup tent with a bicycle chain stitched through it.
Hunter said, “No one leaves except by working the levels. How you stay depends on you.”
Then Mallory realized the canvas thing was a body sack. The bastards would chain you in it up to your neck.
Mallory glared at Hunter, not believing anyone would actually use that thing, but Hunter didn't look like he was bluffing.
Match-Head didn't move.
“Your supplies are on the ground,” Hunter told him. “You won't get new ones.”
Slowly, the kid turned. He went to the supplies and started picking them up.
The kid was crying. He was probably a year older than Mallory, but there he was, crying. Mallory could still see the impression of the gag—red lines around his mouth.
When Match-Head was back in line, Hunter barked more commands—turns, forward march. Army stuff. None of the kids made any more fuss.
Mallory switched off her brain, tried not to think about the pain. She concentrated on her feet moving, on the commands of the instructors.
She hated her mother for sending her here. She hated Chadwick for catching her.
Most of all, she hated the memory his presence had sharpened—Katherine's face, her cold fingers on Mallory's knee, her smile when she said, Hold it for me. I want you to, Mal. I love you.
Mallory's definition of love had been formed that night. Someone makes you admire them, need them, want their approval, and then they abandon you, leave you holding . . . something. A necklace. Pain. Their blackest thoughts. Their path.
It had taken Mallory years to get angry about that. She had grown up deathly afraid she would end up like Katherine, but when she tried talking about it to her parents, her counselor, her teachers, she saw no reassurance in their eyes, just the exact same terror. They handled her as if she'd been infected, as if the silver necklace around her neck was a vial of nitroglycerin. They gave her doe eyes. They used gentle voices. If she threw a fit, they retreated. Just like Katherine—always turning to smoke.
And so Mallory had gotten angry. Fuck, yes, she would keep the necklace. She would be Race's friend. Fuck, yes, she would try heroin. She would validate their fear. She would leave them holding her childhood pictures, wondering what the hell had gone wrong. That was love.
“You will rest when it's time to rest,” Dr. Hunter yelled. “You will work when it's time to work. You will do what you are told, and you will save your own life before you get out of here. That, ladies and gentleman, is a promise. You will find I keep my promises.”
She tried to push away the anger, the desire to scream cuss words until they taped her mouth. She thought about home—about Race, and the world of trouble she'd left him in.
She couldn't be gone now.
Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Talia Montrose—the ragged cuts, the way her fingers had curled into claws, the fat black fly walking along her eyelid. The sound that had come from Race's throat—the raw, hollow moan that was beyond pain—the sound of some animal that had never learned language. The look he had given her—not saying anything, not accusing, but knowing damn well it was all her fault. Her father had threatened to do something like this. And still she and Race had stayed together. They had run. They had slept in places too horrible to remember, on mattresses that stank of urine and grease. They had made awkward love—the first time, despite what their parents had thought—driven together by pain and fear and the need to believe there was something that could burn the image of death out of their brains. She had tried to comfort him. They had tried to make a plan. Race had pressed the money into her hand, said, “I can get more. I will. Keep this for now, until we're ready to leave.”
She wanted to believe Race's beautiful vision—that they could run away together. Race had wonderful dreams, better than anything Mallory ever had.
But at the same time, she had delayed. She had dragged her feet, kept them from leaving Oakland. Part of her craved trouble the way she craved heroin—the way she wanted to lie down and feel the rumble of the BART tracks until the sky turned black and the world ended. Part of her wanted to follow Katherine into that darkened bedroom and close the door.