Sisters in Sanity (excerpt)
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“Don’t make a sound.” Bebe was standing over me in her pajamas, with her hand over my mouth. I opened my eyes and she put her finger over her lips and mouthed, “Get up.” She went over to Martha and did the same thing, except Martha jumped when she woke, and for a second it looked like Tiffany was up too. We all held our breath until Tiffany rolled back over and resumed snoring into her pile of stuffed animals.
Bebe led us out of our room and through the hallways to the T-junction where the residential units met the administrative offices. She pointed to the guard chair, which was empty, and an open utility closet where one of the goons was asleep on the floor. “He likes to nap between one and three, like clockwork, so we, my dears, have a small window of opportunity.” It was a quarter past one.
“How’d you wake yourself up without an alarm clock?”
“I never went to sleep. I was just replaying my Mom’s old soap episodes in my mind. Always good for a laugh.”
“What about the cameras?” I asked.
“They don’t have them in the halls, and they can’t see crap when the lights are out.”
She took us to a small office, empty save for V and Cassie, who were waiting for us there. We sat down in a circle on the floor and faced one another.
“Wow, how’d you know about this office? How’d ya get in?” Martha asked.
V held up a small silver key. “Secret number one,” she said. “The pass key. It opens every door in the place.”
“How did you manage to get that?” I asked.
“Our sneaky V stole it off the Sheriff’s giant key ring,” Cassie said.
“Let’s just say I liberated it. Sheriff thinks he lost it. And of course, they didn’t want to pay to change all the locks,” V said. “Now, let’s get down to business.”
“But what if we get caught?” Martha asked. “I don’t want to get sent back to Level One.”
“We won’t get caught,” V said, impatiently.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Look, I’ve been here for ages and I’ve followed this guard for months. He sleeps from one o’clock till three. You think I’d risk it if I thought we’d get nabbed? I’m on Level Six.”
“Darlings, we’re getting off to a bad start. Can we just begin?”
“I feel like we oughta have some kinda ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ announcement,” Cassie said. “To make it all official.”
“I see your point,” V agreed. “Ladies, welcome to our new, what is it, a club? A clique?”
“Oh, let’s call it a club,” Martha said excitedly.
“A divinely fabulous . . .” Bebe said.
“Ultra-exclusive,” I interrupted.
“Club,” Martha crowed.
“Of the cuckoos!” Cassie added.
“Okay then. Welcome to the Divinely Fabulous Ultra-Exclusive Club of the Cuckoos,” V said.
“Now let’s get down to business. After a year and half I’ve discovered ways to get around many of Red Rock’s rules. I hate this place, and I’ll do anything to fight it. I consider it my revolution from within.”
V, Bebe, and Cassie went on to explain to Martha and me, among other things, how to sneak out letters by giving them to a sympathetic soon-to-be graduate or a trustworthy Level Five or Sixer before a town break. Failing that, one or two of the food-service guys could usually be trusted to smuggle a letter out.
“But you better check with us before you give a letter to anyone,” V warned. “Red Rock gives the staff bonuses if they rat us out, but they also pay them crap the rest of the time, so some of the guys would rather stick it to them than earn twenty bucks for being a stool pigeon.”
After you’ve been here a while, V said, you can get letters from non-family.
“How? They read everything.”
“Brit, darling, listen and learn,” Bebe said. “You just have the person pretend to be your mother or brother or whoever. They read our outgoing mail, but they only skim the incoming stuff and if it says ‘Love Mom and Dad,’ they’ll buy it. They are so pathetically lazy, thank goodness.”
“This is true, but you have to be careful and make sure to speak in code. Because if the letter gets tagged, you’re screwed,” V warned.
“What’s the code?” I asked.
“Do you guys hear something?” Martha asked.
We all froze. “I swore I heard a voice, everyone shush,” Martha whispered. V put her fingers to her lips. We all went silent. The only sound was our breathing and a clock ticking in the hall. I held my breath for extra insurance. I didn’t want to get caught now that I was finally making friends.
After five minutes of silence, V went out for a look and saw the guard snoring away. “False alarm. We’re fine.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought . . .” Martha said.
“No, it’s good to be vigilant.” V gave Martha a reassuring nod.
“Can you get back to this code thing?” I asked, thinking of a person I’d like to get mail from.
“Right. Here’s what we’ve done, and it’s worked so far,” V instructed us. “Discussions about the conditions at Red Rock should be veiled as worries about Grandma, Grandpa, or Aunt Josephine’s or whoever’s health. Declarations of affection or love from friends or boyfriends should be made through gushy descriptions of nice weather. Of course, the first contraband letter you mail should explain all the basic rules. After that it’s up to you to come up with your own code. It’s all a big wink-wink nudge-nudge thing. You’ll know what you guys are talking about. Bebe has even managed to have some mail sex with her pool boy, all in code, and he doesn’t speak English.”
“His name is Pedro and yes he does,” Bebe shot back.
“But don’t get complacent, and don’t get too clever or cute. You never know when they might single out a letter. That Clayton is smart, and if she smells a rat your goose is cooked.”
“Ain’t that a mixed metaphor?” Cassie asked.
V shot her a serious look. “If you get caught, bad diction will be the least of your troubles. Be careful. Be alert. And watch yourself here. Because they’re watching us.”
We all sat there in an ominous silence for a few minutes. V checked the hall clock. “It’s almost three, so we should get back, but there’s one more thing I want to tell you about. After you’ve been here a while, it’s possible, under very particular conditions, to arrange a breakout for a few hours. Once you get town privileges, you can slip away for a while. Cassie’s done it. This one girl, Deanna, even managed to disappear from a forced overnight hike and came back the next day with the staff none the wiser. That happened before I got here, but she’s famous for it. We’re miles from anything worth seeing, so breakouts are more of a last-ditch resort, when you just need to escape for a little while—and I don’t think you newbies should try just yet. But it makes you feel better knowing it’s an option, doesn’t it?” We all nodded. Martha raised her hand.
“Martha, we’re not in class—what is it?”
“The food,” she squeaked.
“Oh, of course. It’s so simple I forgot,” V said. “Socks.”
“Socks,” Bebe elaborated. “Wear those big white sweat socks, the terribly unfashionable ones that bunch down your legs. And sneak your food into them. No one will ever notice, and you can dump the stuff in the yard.”
Martha looked at her own thick white socks. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“We need to get back before the guard wakes up,” V said. “So listen to this last bit. It’s important. This place is not about fixing you. It’s about warehousing you while your clueless parents are bilked out of thousands of dollars. Sheriff, Clayton, and the counselors do not care about us. And they don’t want us to care about each other, so we’ve got to be sneaky. If we rely on each other, we won’t go as nuts as our parents think we are.” V put her arm into the circle.
“One for all and all for one?” Martha said, like a question. V nodded, and Martha put her hand in the circle.
“We, my dears, mustn’t forget that we are the divinely fabulous ultra-exclusive club of the cuckoo,” Bebe said, adding her hand.
“Sisters,” said Cassie, putting her hand in.
“Sisters,” I said, clapping my right hand on top of theirs. I felt the full strength of all of us together. “Sisters in Sanity.”