The dashboard rattled to the music on the radio—a stiff pulse of bass and drums, wild-voweled Australian voices chanting about coming home. She could smell the lemon air freshener Katherine hung from the rearview mirror to hide the cigarette odors from her parents.
At the top of the sidewalk, the Montrose house looked just the way it had—metalwork curling up the yellow walls like oil fire smoke, the door wide open. In the front yard, four palm trees shot into the frozen orange sky.
Then the scene shifted, as cleanly as a holographic picture, and her dad was behind the driver's seat.
Mallory knew, with the logic of dreams, that she was now ten years old as well as six, and her parents had just gotten divorced. Her dad had spotted her walking home from school, pulled her into his car to explain—to apologize for being mean, for yelling, for making her mother run away with Mallory a few months before, the sleeves of Mallory's pajamas trailing from a hastily packed suitcase.
“I didn't mean to scare you,” he said, his hand clamped on her wrist, his eyes like a madman's.
Her mother's words rang in her head, Stay away from him, Mallory. I'm sorry, but we both have to. I'm afraid he'll hurt . . . someone.
Her dad told her the divorce hadn't been his idea. Her mother was keeping them apart. Her mother had bad ideas about how to raise her. He wanted custody of her. He wanted to be with Mallory. Didn't she want that, too?
And Mallory knew full well what her parents had been arguing about, the night her father hit her mother. She remembered their words through her bedroom wall, the sound that ended the yelling—like a sheet of Styrofoam cracked over a knee.
She asked her dad, “Why do you hate Race?”
His eyes closed, his fingers still biting into her wrist. He put his forehead on the steering wheel and started to cry. His weeping scared her more than the look in his eyes, or the grip of his hand, or even the sound of him striking her mother.
The dream shifted again and it was Pérez, her dad's bodyguard, behind the wheel. Mallory was fifteen—her last weekend visit to her dad's, their last huge argument, just a few weeks ago.
Pérez had been driving her to school on Monday morning—Mallory trying to ignore him, trying not to concentrate on the baseball-sized fear that swelled in her gut whenever her dad left her alone with this man.
A lot of her friends' parents had au pairs, or drivers, or personal assistants. But nobody had a Pérez—someone with no soul behind his eyes.
Usually, he would take her straight to school, toss her overnight bags onto the curb without a word and leave, her friends watching from behind the fence, coming up to her afterward and saying, “Shit, Mal. That guy carries, doesn't he? What is your dad—like the mafia? That is so cool.”
And her hands would curl into fists, because these were the same friends who asked if she was “done” with Race yet, if she was tired of slumming, hanging with the homeboy.
But the morning she was dreaming about, Pérez took a detour.
He pulled over in front of the Mill Valley Safeway, and when Mallory demanded what he was doing, he said, “You bring your father nothing but grief. I'm telling you right now, you better stop.”
“Fuck you,” she told him.
But his eyes absorbed the words like they absorbed everything about her. It was as if she were just a shape in a storm cloud, not worth treating as human.
Then she was ten, and it was Pérez holding her wrist. Then she was six, and Pérez was pointing at the Montrose house, saying, “Wasn't for them, you little whore, your dad would be okay. He won't tell you that, but I will.”
“I'll tell my father you talked to me that way,” Mallory said. “He'll fire you.”
“You say anything,” Pérez said, “your boyfriend's going to be scattered off the Farallon Islands for shark chum. You understand me?”
And she knew—the same way she knew Dr. Hunter wasn't kidding, or Leyland, or any of the damn Cold Springs instructors—she knew Pérez was serious.
“Your dad wants to be with you,” Pérez said. “He has it all planned out. But these people—they mess him up, keep a gun to his head; he still tries to solve it peaceful, because he doesn't want to hurt you. And what do you do for him? You disrespect him. You say you don't want to come for weekends anymore. You know what I think?”
Katherine was hurrying down the sidewalk of the Montrose house now, her breath steaming, a brown paper bag in her hand. Six-year-old Mallory was bouncing in her chair, worried that Katherine would run straight into Pérez.
“I think you better change,” Pérez told her. “Cut that boy loose, before we do it for you.”
Ten-year-old Mallory tried to yank away her hand from Pérez, but now the grip was her daddy's—and as much as she feared her father, and hated him sometimes, she didn't want to hear him cry. She didn't want to leave him forever.
A voice was calling from the Montrose house, someone standing on the porch, calling to Katherine. Someone had been in the doorway of the house that night, watching Katherine leave, telling her goodbye—visible only for a second.
Why hadn't Mallory remembered before?
She tried to look, to see who it was, but the shape made her afraid.
“I will make him stay away,” her father was saying. “I have to.”
Something was out of place. Something was wrong with Pérez's words, and her father's. Something about the shape in the doorway.
Then Katherine opened the door of the Toyota, sank into the driver's seat, straight into Pérez's body.
And Mallory's eyes snapped open.
Instructors were yelling, rousting her out of her sleeping bag. Their flashlights cut arcs across the darkness, illuminating the cinder block walls of the barracks.
“Get your lazy butts up!” Leyland shouted. “You think this is a resort? You think this is Club Med?”
The cold had been no dream. It was worse than the night in the Toyota, worse than any cold Mallory had ever known, because she'd been in it for days. Her whole body ached from shivering.
She didn't want to leave the small pool of warmth that had collected in her sleeping bag.
Fuck the drill sergeants. She wasn't going to move.
But Leyland and another instructor dragged her to her feet, tossed her a shirt that smelled like a dead animal—her own smell. They forced her to get dressed in the dark, reminding her that she was wearing the same dirty black fatigues as yesterday because she'd refused to wash them in the river when they'd told her to.
“You are here,” Leyland announced to them all, “because you have a problem.”
He walked back and forth between Mallory and the others, watching them fumble with their clothes.
“You are here because you failed your family,” he said, “not the other way around.”
Mallory's fingers were too numb to work the zipper. Her breath seeped out as mist, as if trying to expel the remnants of her dream.
The cinder block cabin that passed for their dormitory had no electricity, no heat, no running water. Mallory remembered bitterly, a million years ago, how she'd hoped to find a phone. There was no goddamn phone. There was no goddamn outside world.
“This is not about your parents,” Leyland told them. “This is not about the bad breaks you've had in your overprivileged young lives. THIS IS ABOUT YOU!”
If he only knew, Mallory thought bitterly.
She couldn't get rid of Pérez's image—those brown eyes staring straight into her like a coroner, or a dentist, someone with no interest in her beyond the point of a scalpel.
The instructors herded them outside, called out their names—Zedman, Morrison, Smart, Bridges.
It wasn't light yet, but Mallory knew it was five o'clock sharp. That's what time they always came.
A full moon glowed through the dead oak branches, making bulbs of Spanish moss look like silver fur. The air smelled of frost and wood rot, and the hills were moaning faintly, the way they did all night.
Nothing to worry about, the instructors had told her about the moaning—just a billion tons of granite contracting with the temperature drop. But Leyland had smiled maliciously, as if he knew that Mallory stayed up wide-eyed at night, ashamed to call for help, to admit that she was terrified of ghosts. How bad did Texas have to be, that even the hills groaned?
“Move it!” Leyland said.
They began to run, taking the course Mallory had come to know too well, even in the dark—a half mile through the woods, down steep timber steps hammered into the mud. The run didn't warm Mallory up. It just made her sweaty, let the cold stick to her body and the wind pierce her flimsy clothes.
The edge of the sky was turning pink by the time they got to the riverbank.
Past the obstacle course, Mallory could see her goal: the cliffs at the river, outcroppings of rock that the instructors called the Mushrooms. To Mallory, they looked like scar tissue, swollen and raw and pink.
If all four black levels made it there, across one hundred yards of hell, the instructors had promised they would never see this obstacle course again. But they hadn't come close—not yet.
How long had they been doing this—a week? Ten days?
Every day, Mallory would rebel. Every day they would slap her down, lock her up for a while, then put her right back on the treadmill.
She no longer faked cooperation. Now she tried to resist every way she could—sitting out, yelling, hitting, kicking. If she just acted up long enough and hard enough, eventually they'd kick her out of the program, call her mother and tell her Mallory was hopeless.
She knew what the body sack felt like now. She knew how many bricks made up the wall of the solitary confinement room. She knew what duct tape felt like over her mouth.
She had been mad so long that she'd started to feel like a burned-out lightbulb. Still, she had to keep at it.
The counselors stood at the far end of the obstacle course—young guys in white sweats, ready to head-shrink the kids when the physical torture was over. Mallory had seen enough TV to recognize the good cop/bad cop setup—the instructors bullied them around; the counselors played like their friends, gave the kids a little kindness, then cracked open their insides like rotten pecans.
But Wilson, her would-be counselor, Wilson was no longer in the lineup. She'd kicked him in the nuts at their first meeting, and he hadn't been back since. Dr. Hunter was probably still looking for a replacement crazy enough to deal with her.
“Line up!” Leyland raised the whistle to his lips.
This was the time to make trouble. To resist his command. She could run for it, or hit somebody, or just sit down and not do the course.
But her eye started twitching—remembering the body sack, the insults the other kids hurled at her whenever she made the team suffer for her bad behavior.
For every infraction, Leyland made her pay hard. But when she cooperated, even a little—he gave her perks. Five minutes extra sleep. A new bar of soap. Lemonade instead of water.
She hated it—but she felt a flicker of pleasure when he paid her even the smallest compliment, when he said, “That's more like it, Zedman,” and filled her cup with watery pink swill she wouldn't have washed her toilet with back home.
No, she thought. Don't cooperate.