Maybe the program was starting to get to her—all the talk about how she was responsible for what happened to her, how it was whining to blame everyone else. She hadn't let go of the anger toward her parents. Not at all. But San Francisco did seem another life—two thousand miles away.
So Mallory had told them a little about herself. She'd told them about Race—how they'd gotten to be friends in the second grade, how they found a lighter once in the Presidio, and set an acre of grassland on fire while the rest of the class was playing capture the flag. Did they get expelled? Of course not. Her mom was the goddamn headmistress.
It was a stupid little story, but the team had liked it, which was such a relief to Mallory that she almost told them what was really on her chest, the thing that had been sitting on her heavier than any of the damn cinder blocks—her suspicion that maybe, just maybe, she'd slept with a murderer.
The base camp was set up on a shelf of red granite, pocked with erosion pits as big as dinosaur footprints. The largest depression, about the depth of a bathtub, served as the team's fire pit, but there was no fire yet. The team would have to make one from scratch—and they only got to do that after the counseling session was over.
Their rolled-up sleeping bags sat in a neat row in front of an easel with a chart board—the program's four big concepts, each written in a different color marker:
Below that was a line, then the night's two activities, in what Mallory knew was Olsen's handwriting:
1. Take responsibility for a lie you got away with.Tell what the truth was.
The second item made Mallory nervous, because she didn't understand it.
Olsen stood next to the board, waiting for them, a clipboard tucked under her arm, her hands hidden in a huge beige overcoat that reminded Mallory of Chadwick. The other counselors were a few feet away, counting out pens and postcards from a plastic sack.
The team fell out to their sleeping bags. They sat cross-legged, backs straight, hands in their laps. First, Olsen asked them to brainstorm on the word accountability, which was old-hat now, automatic stuff. Then she asked for volunteers to tell about a lie they'd gotten away with.
“Anything,” Olsen said. “Even something small.”
She was looking at Mallory.
“I don't know,” Mallory murmured. “I can't think of anything.”
Smart and Bridges and Morrison looked equally glum.
Wind curled the chart paper, tugging at the paper clips that held it in place. A drop of rain splattered the y in Accountability.
“Never lied, huh?” Olsen sat down with them, motioned for Bridges and Morrison to scoot in and make a circle. “You want me to start?”
The black levels stared at their shoes.
Mallory felt sorry for Olsen, having to deal with them. Mallory would never be a teacher. She'd never work with kids.
Olsen grabbed her ankles, pulled in her legs. “I never knew my dad, okay? I grew up with a stepdad, and he left my mom and me when I was eight. When I was in college, I hired someone to look for him.”
Bridges asked if Olsen meant her real dad or her stepdad.
“My stepdad,” Olsen said. “I wasn't interested in finding my biological father. Never have been. I don't know why. Anyway, I found out what had happened to my stepdad, but when my mom asked, I just told her he had died. She believed me. I think she was relieved to know that's why he had never come back. But I was lying to her.”
Even Smart, the goddamn ADHD poster child, was paying attention now.
Morrison said, “What was the truth?”
Olsen raised her eyebrows. “First you guys tell me your lie.”
They all looked away.
Smart-Mouth mumbled that he'd been taught liars went to hell, so he never did it, seriously. That brought a groan from Morrison. Smart snapped at her to shut up.
Bridges gave them some lame story about a time he'd told his mom he was going to a sleepover, but he was really with a girl. Mallory knew the biggest lie was that that had ever happened.
Mallory found herself watching Olsen. She didn't know why, but she felt a cord of understanding between them—small but warm. She wanted to hear what had happened in her story.
“Last week on Thanksgiving,” Mallory said. “I lied to Chadwick.”
Olsen tried to keep that standard counselor expression on her face, but her eyes had gotten nervous. “What did you lie about?”
“My friend Race.”
Bridges said, “The guy helped you burn down that park?”
“Yeah. I told Chadwick I was with Race at this . . . really important time. I was kind of like Race's alibi. I kind of lied.”
“I don't get it.” Smart was shaking his head. “What do you mean kind of?”
Mallory looked at Smart—with his newly buzzed orange hair and that ugly gash on his lip where he'd hit the obstacle course bar, and his glazed eyes—IQ 89, maybe, with the wind at his back. She looked at Morrison, and Bridges. All of them waiting for her to spill her guts.
Suddenly she felt ashamed, angry, as if she'd exposed herself. She'd betrayed Race to get Olsen's favor. “Of course you don't get it, Smart. You're an idiot.”
“Whoa,” Olsen intervened. “Mallory, stop. Time out.”
Mallory counted silently back from twenty. A drop of rain hit her eye and made her blink.
“You want to finish your story now?” Olsen asked.
Mallory shook her head. She was mortified they'd think she was crying.
Olsen let the silence build, waiting for her to fill it, but she wouldn't.
“Anybody else, then?” Olsen asked.
But the possibility of openness had evaporated. Smart and Bridges and Morrison all stayed mute.
Mallory waited for Olsen to stop the session. She could've called over the instructors, told them the team wasn't cooperating, gotten them all put to bed with no fire, no dinner. Instead she said, “Let's move to the last activity. Break out, one-on-one.”
The other three black levels scrambled up and found their counselors. Mallory stayed where she was.
Olsen asked, “You sure you don't want to tell me anything?”
“Forget it. I was like digging for something to say, okay? It was stupid.”
Olsen let it pass. She pulled a postcard off her clipboard and gave it to Mallory. The computer-printed label read:
Mrs. Ann Zedman
200 Coit Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94611
The left half of the card was blank.
“This is your first chance to write home,” Olsen said. “It'll also be your last chance until you finish Black Level. You don't need to say much. Just tell her you're okay.”
Mallory stared at the blank half of the card.
Six square inches of white had never seemed so huge.
She pictured her mother the last time she'd seen her—eyes swollen from crying, hands over her temples to push back the headache, screaming at Mallory to stop. And Mallory, in a haze, taking the hammer from the kitchen cabinet, breaking dishes and coffee mugs, following her mother down the hallway, smashing her framed childhood pictures on the walls, turning pots into shrapnel, yelling that the last person her mother should be scared of was Race.
It was like something that had happened to another person, but the memory didn't make her feel sorry. All that anger was still inside her. Her mother was never there for her. She was always running away—from her father, from Mallory, from everything except her precious fucking school.
What did Olsen expect her to do? Dash off a quick note, Hi, Mom. I Love You. Smiley faces and little hearts on the i's—something that her mom could file away in the office, in that fat manila folder labeled Zedman, Mallory?
Over by the fire pit, Bridges was crying. Mallory would never have figured it—but there he was, bawling like a two-hundred-pound baby.
Smart was sitting at the edge of the cliff, hunched over his postcard, writing every word like it was part of his obituary.
Morrison sat stone still, her face pale, her pen frozen over the card.
Mallory handed Olsen back the postcard.
“I can't do it,” she said. “Lock me up.”
There was something in Olsen's eyes Mallory hadn't seen in so long she didn't recognize it at first—sympathy.
“Come on,” Olsen said, gentle but firm.
They walked back down the path in the growing dark, the rain sprinkling their clothes, until they got to the split-rail fence of the horse pasture.
Mallory knew there was a white level tailing them, ten or twenty feet behind—there was always an instructor on duty, keeping an eye on things—but somehow that didn't matter. It felt like she and Olsen were alone.
Olsen leaned against the rail, pulled a plastic bag out of her overcoat—apple slices. She pointed to one of the horses, the bay filly. “I bet that brown one would come over if you offered it something.”
Mallory felt her cheeks get hot.
One of the pictures Mallory had smashed at her mother's house had been a kindergarten drawing of a horse. The panel she'd done for the auction quilt that year—that had been a horse, too. She'd been obsessed as a little girl, and probably would've continued to be obsessed, if it hadn't been for Katherine's suicide.
After that night, Mallory was the girl-who'd-touched-a-dead-body. And girls who touch dead bodies don't get to play with toy horses. They sit in the corner of the classroom and draw dark pictures, while the teacher hovers over them with concern. Those girls grow up fast, learn bad habits, make bad friends with the kids everybody else snubs. They start dating early, and set things on fire. And of course their parents divorce. That goes without saying. Girls who touch dead bodies don't have time for horses.
“No thanks,” she said.
“Come on,” Olsen said. “These apples have been in my pocket for hours. Who else is going to eat them?”
Olsen plopped the bag on the fence, split the zip-lock, and the filly immediately pricked up its ears. Its mane and tail were silky black, its flank so velvety brown it was almost red.
“I'm not writing the postcard,” Mallory told Olsen, “if that's what you're thinking.”
But she dug her fingers into the bag and fished out an apple slice—warm, slippery, marbled with brown. She held it over the fence and the horse clopped toward her, its velvety nose snuffling.
The filly was huge, its shoulders higher than Mallory, its hooves the size of steam irons. It was nothing like the cute little drawings Mallory had made as a kid. The real horse was all muscle and twitch. Dangerous, powerful. The thing's snout was warm with mucus and saliva, and it breathed steam on Mallory's palm as it lipped up the apple. Mallory told herself it was disgusting.
She fed it the rest of the apple slices, one at a time, stroking its muzzle between bites.
Olsen propped her foot on the bottom fence rail. “You know about Gray Level, Mallory? You choose a ranch skill to master. One of the options is horsemanship. You could do that, if you wanted.”
The filly nuzzled the empty plastic bag, then bopped Mallory gently under the chin.
“Why're you telling me that?” Mallory asked. “You into horses, or something?”