But the whistle blew, and Mallory hit the mud on her chest, started crawling under the rope net.
Leyland yelled, “Don't you touch my ropes, Zedman! Don't let your dirty back touch my ropes!”
Then he turned and yelled at Morrison, who was lagging behind.
Morrison got in trouble almost as much as Mallory. Not because Morrison was a rebel, but because she was a weak fat slob who could never make the course. She'd taken all the abuse the instructors could dish out, but every day she failed to get even halfway. They all had to wait for her while she tried repeatedly, and cried, until finally the instructors walked her through and punished the whole group for what she couldn't do.
Mallory was grateful for her, though—grateful that there was another girl in the group. Grateful that Morrison sometimes took the instructors' abuse instead of her.
Mallory's elbows felt like spikes going through her skin, pulling her along through the mud.
“Move, Zedman!” another instructor yelled. Always a new voice—another anonymous demon with a pitchfork. “This is what you ran away for, isn't it? You're all grown up now! Take care of your own life!”
Mallory clenched her teeth to keep from screaming obscenities.
She got out from under the rope net and started the tire gauntlet.
The two boys in her unit—Bridges and Smart—were already ahead of her. Smart was the kid with the spiky yellow hair, the one who'd gotten his mouth taped for cussing the first day. Ever since then, the instructors had had a good time calling him Smart-Mouth, like that was some hysterical joke.
Bridges was the fat kid with the bad acne, yet somehow he was always the first one under the ropes.
Mallory didn't know their first names. She didn't care.
Behind her, Leyland yelled, “Come on, Morrison!”
Mallory could hear Morrison sobbing, which was predictable, like every other damn thing in this place. Every day—yelled awake, drilled to death, fed bread and water for breakfast. Then the damn counselors pulled them aside for the “program”—lectures nobody wanted to hear, followed by chances to talk nobody ever took. And then there would be the slave labor—building a new dorm for the next group of victims.
What would Race think of this? Mallory tried to imagine him here. Race would fight the instructors, she decided. He would succeed where she failed.
She slowed down on the tires. The new assistant instructor got in her ear, yelling at her to keep her knees up. Mallory didn't look at the guy, but she could tell it was one of the older kids—the ones they called white levels. No one would ever brainwash Mallory like that.
She tried to keep her mind on Race. The guilt swelled up in her again—the knowledge that she had left him, didn't even know where he was staying now, or if the police had caught him.
Everything had gone horribly wrong. Her mom finding the gun in the locker—somebody must've told her to look, but Mallory couldn't figure out who. Then the argument with her mom, running away to Race, that nightmarish week at Talia's. The Halloween party, coming home and finding the body. Then afterward . . . hiding out with Race, holding him while he cried, making love in the stairwell of that abandoned apartment building.
It had all been a mistake—even the sex.
She understood now why they called it losing virginity. She had lost something of herself, and what had she gotten in return? She didn't even feel what she had wanted most—closer to Race.
She tripped on the last tire, fell flat on her face. She turned over, wheezing, her eyes stinging with mud, and stared at the canopy of cypress branches above. The white level's face hovered over her, hollering at her to get up.
She got to her feet, managed not to take a swing at the kid. She'd tried that when—yesterday? She'd popped some instructor in the eye and paid for it with four hours in solitary, locked in a lightless shed until she'd started to see spots like jellyfish floating in the darkness.
She jumped up to the balance beam—still thinking about Race, and Pérez's words. If it wasn't for those people, your dad would be okay. They keep a gun to his head.
Mallory wasn't stupid. She'd never met Race's older brother but she knew Samuel had supplied Katherine's drugs. She understood why her dad wouldn't like her hanging out with the Montroses. But still, the hate in his voice when he talked about them . . . it was way beyond fear for Mallory. It was murderous.
And the idea that he was planning something, that the Montroses were keeping a gun to his head—what the hell did that mean?
She'd tried to talk to Race about it, but he'd gotten really quiet.
He admitted his brother had been a dealer, a real bad-ass. He told her how Samuel used to beat up his mother's boyfriends—grown men, twice his size. Samuel had made Race work as a spotter for cops on the street corner. The same year Mallory had been starting kindergarten, Race had been working the drug trade.
But that was a long time ago, and Race had been adamant—Samuel wasn't in the picture anymore. He wouldn't say where Samuel had gone, but Mallory was pretty sure Race was telling her the truth—on that point, anyway.
What bothered her, the more she thought about it, was something Race had told her after they'd made love, when she'd asked if there was any relative he could go to—anybody he trusted.
He had propped himself up on his elbow, stared over her shoulder long enough for a BART train to blare past outside the grimy window. “Insanity runs in my family, Mal. There's nobody I trust. Nobody.”
He opened his palm. His nails had cut deep crescents into his lifeline.
Ever since that night, she'd been thinking. Little things, like the fact that she'd woken up the morning after Halloween, crashed on a couch in an abandoned house, and Race hadn't been there. He'd come back soon enough, bringing donuts and beer for breakfast, but she had no idea how long he'd been gone. And after that they'd walked together to his mother's.
That didn't mean he'd killed Talia. Of course it didn't.
But if the police questioned her, if they visited Cold Springs and pressured her the way the instructors did, told her it was her ass, or her boyfriend's—what would she say? Would she have the courage to lie? To be Race's alibi?
She was falling behind on the course. She hit the parallel bars, arm-walked across, caught up with Smart and Bridges, who were throwing themselves uselessly at the wall.
“Let's go!” Leyland bellowed. He'd traded places with the white level—let the white level chew out Morrison for a while. “This is a little wall, Zedman. My grandmother trains on this wall. Get your sorry butt over the top. LET'S GO!”
Mallory knew the wall wasn't more than six feet high, but it felt a lot taller. She could get her fingertips to the top, but there was no way she had enough strength to pull herself up. She slammed into it anyway, grabbed the top, felt the blisters break on her hands from where she'd done the same thing the day before. She ended up sprawled on the ground, staring at the gray cinder blocks. Her whole damn life came down to cinder blocks—sleeping in them, climbing them, building with them. The instructors would have her eating cinder blocks pretty soon.
Smart and Bridges weren't having any more luck than Mallory. Smart wasn't strong enough. Bridges was too damn fat; he could get his meaty hands around the top, but then he'd climb about two feet and hang there like a sandbag before falling on his butt.
Mallory got up and tried again, hating the wall, wanting to bust it down.
Morrison came up next to her, huffing and sobbing, and Mallory realized that nobody had walked her up this time. She'd made it herself. Mallory didn't know why, but she liked that Morrison had beaten the bastards, shown them she could get this far.
Mallory looked down at her raw hands. She was about to throw herself at the wall again, then she stopped.
She remembered a time in second grade—Mrs. Sanford's class, Laurel Heights, the new kid Race huddled under the sand table because the boys had teased him about wearing the same shoes five days in a row, asking him if his mom had ever heard of Goodwill. And Mrs. Sanford not seeing any of it—blind to what was going on right under her nose, just like every teacher. Just like Mallory's mom.
Mallory had scooted under the sand table with Race and apologized to him, even though she hadn't done anything. Right there, they'd formed a friendship, writing their names for each other on the sandy cement. They'd ganged up together and become the terrors of the class.
“Hey,” she told Morrison. “Come on!”
She laced her fingers together, made a foothold. Morrison looked at her like she was from Mars.
Morrison had lost all traces of that heavy mascara she'd worn on arrival, but her eyes were still swollen from constant crying. Her stringy hair had been dyed four different colors and was matted to her cheeks so it looked like several different animals had crawled on her head to die.
“Don't mess with me, Zedman,” she muttered, but she didn't put any heart in it.
The instructors were still yelling, but they weren't yelling specifically at Mallory or Morrison. Mallory felt as if she'd suddenly created a bubble of neutral space, the drill sergeant crap flowing right around her.
“I'm serious,” she told Morrison. “Screw Leyland, okay? Come on!”
Morrison hesitated, then, awkwardly, put her foot in Mallory's cupped hands. She almost fell trying to get her balance, but she got her hands on the top of the wall and held on. Mallory's raw blisters hurt like hell, but she kept her fingers laced together and stood, pushing Morrison's leg up. It was like trying to balance a barbell on one end, but Mallory kept pushing and suddenly Morrison was at the top, and then over the wall with a painful thump.
Mallory had forgotten how good it felt to smile.
Bridges and Smart were staring at her like they were sure she'd just signed their death warrants.
Leyland shouted, “Keep it moving, Zedman!”
And Mallory heard something new in his tone—approval.
That's what they wanted. They wanted team cooperation.
Mallory was about to offer Smart a boost over the wall when a whistle blew two times—that sharp signal that meant “faces to the wall.” Black levels weren't supposed to see anyone but their own team. They weren't supposed to make eye contact with any visitor. Smart and Bridges turned so their noses were touching the cinder block.
Morrison scrambled around from the other side of the wall to join them. Her whole left side was caked with mud, but she gave Mallory a strange look that made her feel they had a new understanding—an alliance.
“Wall!” the white level screamed.
Mallory made the mistake of glancing back before complying, and when she did she saw Dr. Hunter and his visitors.
One was a young black woman. From her street clothes, and Hunter's body language, it was obvious she was getting a tour—maybe a parent, or a reporter. The other newcomer was the butch-looking blond woman who'd been with Chadwick, the day they'd picked up Mallory.
What was her name—Owens? No. Olsen.
She was dressed in white sweats. She joined the line of counselors at the end of the course.
Then Mallory understood what she was doing here—she was going to replace Wilson, the guy Mallory had kicked in the balls. The realization was like a drink of acid.
Leyland was yelling at her now, telling her to get her nose to the cinder block, but she didn't.