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The girl with the dirty blonde hair ran down the hillside and began to pick her way rapidly through the trees. Her arms were scratched and torn from their branches, and her damp hair lay plastered across her forehead. She was desperate to get away, but had no idea where she was headed.
The trees parted in front of her to reveal a small pond of brackish water, and she moved to the left, trying to skirt it without being seen. She heard a noise and froze, her breath loud in her ears. Slowly she sank to her knees, keeping as still and silent as possible. Had they found her already?
The noise came again. At first she thought it was the cry of some exotic bird, but it resolved into the sound of a person whistling. Her body stiffened and she pressed herself flat in the shadows between two large rocks at the water's edge.
Maybe they won't see me, she thought. But, oh God, what if they do?
The whistling was audible but distant, somewhere on the other side of the pond. She realized the rocks wouldn't provide enough cover, so she began inching backward, low to the ground.
The whistling ceased.
"Anna?" she heard a voice call out, and her heart pounded in fear. "I know you're out here somewhere." She heard the crackling sound of breaking twigs, the man getting closer. Her muscles coiled to spring into action. She would run again if she had to, she knew that much.
"Pretty stupid," the voice said. She hated the sound of it, like he was mocking her. "You could get hurt out here, easy." He paused. "Christ, it's hot." She heard deliberate footsteps approaching. Her heart was now beating so fast she thought it would leap out of her chest, and she blinked away a drop of sweat.
You can't see me, she thought, willing herself to blend in with the landscape. I'm invisible.
"Anna?" He was much closer now.
Please don't fucking see me, she prayed. Please let him walk right past me.
"Over there! By the rocks!" the man suddenly yelled, triumphant. "There she is!"
Anna exploded upward, limbs flailing for traction on the mud, and she spun like a cornered animal toward him. It was the small man, the one she'd dubbed the Boxer because of his crooked nose. He was just ten yards away, head down, racing toward her.
Anna plunged back into the trees, driven by pure desperation to remain free. She fought off branches with her hands as she forced her body forward. She could hear the Boxer close behind, cursing as the branches snapped back in his face. Her long sprinter's legs pushed her through the underbrush and for a blissful moment she was pulling ahead, until something collided with her so violently it blotted out the light and rattled her jaw. She fell hard onto the muddy ground.
Anna struggled for air as she felt strong arms grasp her around the chest, yanking her upward. She jerked her head back and twisted her body, trying to squirm out of the man's grasp. He smelled gross, like stale sweat and gasoline. It wasn't the Boxer, but the other man, the big one with a fat neck as wide as his shaved head. At least six three and two hundred and fifty pounds.
His breath was hot, and his arms felt like steel bands. Anna wriggled in anger and pain, and his arms pressed harder against her breasts.
"Fantastic!" the Boxer was raving to the big man. He clambered over a rock behind them, out of breath. "You shoulda been a linebacker! You knocked her back to her senses maybe. Boy, she can run."
The big man grunted in response.
Anna tasted iron. She ran her tongue around her mouth and realized she'd bitten her lip in the struggle. Her sides throbbed where the big man still clutched her firmly. She hated the feel of his chest rubbing against her back.
The Boxer materialized in front of them. "You all right?" he asked her.
Anna scowled, the fury radiating out like steam. She was so pissed off, she couldn't even think of what to say.
The Boxer just laughed. "She's giving us the silent treatment." Anna started to feel lightheaded, like she was going to faint, because the big man's arms were constricting her. The Boxer noticed and frowned at his companion. "Hey man, loosen that grip. We don't want to kill her, right?"
"It's loose enough," he replied, but Anna felt his arms slacken and she was able to breathe more freely again.
The Boxer surveyed their surroundings. "We're going to have to drag her up the ravine, and then all the way back to the van. I think I'm too tired." He scratched the crest of his thinning brown hair. He was wiry, with a tanned, angular face, and if it weren't for his mangled nose and receding hairline he might have been handsome. "Anna, if we let you go, will you behave? No more running? We can't spend the whole day chasing after you. There's nowhere to go anyway. It's just marsh and forest all the way down to Miami."
Anna met his blue eyes. "I won't run," she said hoarsely.
He grinned. "Good deal. It's a helluva lot easier if you walk than if we have to carry you."
The big man let her go and stepped away. "Don't do anything stupid," he whispered, "or else you might get your arm broken."
The Boxer frowned and pretended not to hear. Anna wasn't sure which man she hated more. "The road's back this way."
With the two men behind her, Anna began walking through the forest, back to the van and captivity. Hot tears of rage welled up in her eyes. She was so dumb to have tried running. What the fuck had she been thinking? Now she just wanted to curl into a ball and sob, but she wasn't going to let the bastards make her cry. As she stumbled through the forest, she promised herself when it was all over she'd make them pay for what they'd done to her. She'd make everyone pay, if she ever got the chance.
Back in the gray Chevy van, the heat was intense. The Boxer locked her in the back, and she slumped on the narrow metal bench, which was rusted and uncomfortable. She was trapped just like an animal again and the thought made her sick.
The engine started and the van pulled onto the highway. There were no windows except for two circular portholes on the back doors, and they were painted over, making it impossible to see out. The windows were also covered with a wire mesh, which had sliced her hands when she'd tried to break the glass. She'd also tried to kick in the metal partition between the space she was trapped in and the driver's cabin, without any success. Whenever she pressed her ear up to it, she could hear the Boxer and the big man talking, but was unable to decipher their words.
Anna sat back against the vibrating hull of the van. It was noisy and dark inside, hot and airless, and it smelled like old gym socks. She wondered how many girls they'd taken before her. Except for her escape attempt, which had lasted all of three hours hiding in the forest, she'd been in the van since six in the morning and guessed it was now late afternoon. The men had let her out only twice, both times to squat at the edge of the highway and pee. They didn't even care how embarrassing it was for her. Instead they'd laughed and called her a little princess. It was on the second occasion she'd made a break for it, sprinting down the embankment and into the thick forest. She'd known it was futile, but she'd tried anyway, because there was no sense going down without a fight.
Anna was now more tired than she ever remembered being, and she was starving, too. They'd only given her a box of survival biscuits all day and a plastic gallon jug of water. She felt dirty, and disconnected from her body, like it was no longer her own.
When the men stopped at a gas station, Anna heard them open their doors and get out. She leapt up and pounded on the wall. "Help!" she screamed, thinking someone might hear her. "Get me out of here!"
Someone tapped back on one of the painted windows, but it was just the Boxer. She could hear him chuckling and her skin crawled. "Keep it up, baby," he yelled. "No one's gonna rescue your sorry ass."
She pounded again in frustration and heard more laughter. She sat back down on the bench. In anger she kicked at the water bottle and sent it clattering against the side of the van. It rolled back to her feet and she suppressed the urge to cry again. The engine eventually started up and they resumed their journey.
Anna rubbed her eyes and thought about what a nightmare scene it had been when the two men came for her in those dark early hours of the morning.
If only I hadn't come home at all last night, she thought dismally. Then none of this would have happened. But she'd climbed through her bedroom window around three in the morning, after her boyfriend Ryan had dropped her off. They'd been at a party and Ryan had scored some weed for them. She'd been so quiet sneaking back in, totally satisfied her parents had no idea what she'd been doing. She remembered the feeling of sliding between the cool sheets, stretching out on her soft bed, her hair still smelling comfortingly of smoke. She still felt pretty stoned, and she was so tired she fell asleep right away.
The next thing she knew, the lights in her room were blazing, and a voice she didn't recognize was screaming at her. She sat up in bed, terrified, wondering what was going on, and saw a strange man standing over her.
This was the Boxer. The second man, the big one, was blocking the door.
"What the fuck!" she screamed, feeling like her veins had been pumped full of ice water. "Mom! Dad!" She scrabbled against the wall, trying to get to the window, but like a bad dream, everything was in slow motion and she got too scared to move.
"Get out of bed," the stranger commanded. "And knock off that yelling. Your parents aren't going to help you now."
"Dad!" she tried to scream again, but her larynx was constricting in fear and the words came out too softly. All kinds of awful scenarios were racing through her mind. Who were these men and what did they want with her? Was her house being robbed? Was she going to be abducted or something? That had always been a secret fear of hers.
"I said, get up! Maybe you need some help?" The Boxer reached over and grabbed hold of her left arm and yanked her right out of bed. She sprawled on the floor in her light blue sleep shirt and panties.
"What do you want?" she managed, trying to cover herself up. She could hear the fear in her trembling voice.
"Put these on," the man told her as he tossed her a pair of jeans, the same ones she'd been wearing just a few hours before. The big man at the door didn't move. He just watched as Anna stood up and struggled to get dressed.
"What's happening? What are you doing here? Are you taking me somewhere? I need to get my parents." She realized she was babbling, but she couldn't stop herself. She felt like she was going to hyperventilate and have a panic attack, not that she'd ever actually had one before.
The Boxer didn't respond, and the big man in the doorway was silent, too, just a shadowy, scary blob.
"Put some shoes on. Comfortable ones," the Boxer instructed. "Do it now, or I'll force you."
Anna obeyed his commands. Her mind was churning as she slipped on her favorite pair of pink Adidas sneakers. She felt like she was still in a dream, and she wondered if the two men were even real.
"Walk to the door. I'll be right behind you."
Anna did as she was told, in a state of utter shock. Her arm hurt from where the Boxer had pulled her out of bed, but that was nothing compared to her fear. The big man stood in front of her so she was effectively sandwiched between the two strangers as they maneuvered her out of the room.
"What's going on?" Anna asked, trying to find her voice again. "Where are my parents? Are they okay? Have you hurt them?"
"So now you're worried about your parents," the Boxer said. "Typical." His voice was dead and flat, like a serial killer's. "Let's move it."
Anna walked with the two men through her parents' sprawling suburban mansion, past the cavernous dining room with its vaulted ceiling, then the living room and its expanse of white leather couches. All the lights were turned on, which was weird, and the house was eerily silent, like an empty cathedral on a weekday afternoon. The procession approached the foyer and the oak-paneled front doors of the house. Anna thought when she got outside she'd just start running. If she could get to a neighbor's house and bang on their door, then she might escape her fate.
The big man opened the doors and the Boxer pushed Anna onto the porch. It was there she finally realized what was going on, and her heart felt as heavy as stone.
Her parents were waiting for her outside, fully dressed. Her mom looked like she'd been crying because her eyes were swollen and red, and had that certain puffy look that couldn't be disguised. Her dad's face was blank and expressionless, as it so often was. He stood ramrod straight, like he was still a general in the army. Anna's father had been in the military for twenty years, until he retired and his second career began writing a series of best-selling religious books that prophesied the end of the world, and the punishment of all sinners. He looked at the Boxer and nodded.
So he's finally done it, Anna thought grimly, he's turned me over. He'd been threatening to send her to a wilderness survival camp for the last few months, and it looked like the day had finally come. Her heart was in her stomach. She hadn't thought her dad possessed the courage. Anna felt the betrayal just as surely as if a knife had stabbed her in the back.
"How the fuck could you do this to me?" she asked him. She knew it was his decision because her mom would never send her away, no matter how badly she behaved. Anna and her mom actually got along decently, especially when her mom stayed out of her way.
"I warned you, Anna." Her father's voice was cold and hard, like he thought he was giving a sermon. "Don't say you weren't warned. We gave you every chance to turn your life around, but you refused to learn from your mistakes, didn't you? You continued to sin even when you knew the penalty."
"But Dad," she urged, at a loss for words. Her mouth was very dry. If there was any chance she could talk her way out of the situation, she didn't want to blow it. She'd managed to get out of scrapes before, but to be honest, none this serious. "Dad, you don't have to do this. It's not going to help anything if you send me away. I know I've been screwing up lately, but I can change. You just need to give me the opportunity to prove it. I'll show you I can do better if you just give me a chance!"
Her words had little impact, and she knew it. "You've run out of chances, Anna. In fact, you ran out of them a while ago. I'm your father and it's my responsibility to step in and do something so you don't end up ruining your life. I'm doing this out of love, not hatred or anger."
"Please!" Anna exclaimed. That word seemed so small, so insignificant. Too small to have any effect. The reality of her predicament was beginning to sink in, and she felt sick to her stomach.
She turned to her mom, whose shellacked hair was immaculate even at that hour. She always hated how her mom looked more like a fifties housewife than like any of her friends' moms. "Don't I deserve a second chance? I'll be good, promise. Please don't let him do this to me."
"It's not just my decision," Anna's father said. It was typical that he didn't even let her mom respond for herself. Anna knew her dad believed women were emotional and incompetent, and neither his years in the military nor his obsession with the Bible had helped change his way of thinking. "We made this decision together, as one."
"But it's not fair!" Anna exclaimed, her voice cracking with anger. She felt rage welling inside her and fought hard to control it, because she knew it would just fuel their misconceptions of her. "You don't understand anything about my life! You've never listened to me or trusted me once, not in sixteen years! You're such a fucking asshole! I hate you "
As soon as the words left her mouth, she knew she'd made a big mistake. Her therapist had warned her about letting her dad make her angry, but obviously she hadn't learned much from therapy. She was about to speak even more of her mind, but a hand suddenly clasped the back of her neck, fingers pressing so painfully into the skin that she gagged. It was the Boxer, who'd crept up behind her.
"You can't talk to your parents that way anymore." He sounded remarkably calm. "We won't allow it, even if they will, understand? You don't rule this household. You need to show some respect."
The big man moved toward her menacingly, like he might want to put his hands on her, too.
"Now apologize for cursing," the Boxer instructed.
"No," Anna declared, writhing in his grasp. "I won't! Who are you to tell me what to do? You don't own me."
His fingers constricted and she found herself being forced to the ground, face down, until her lips almost touched the stained wood of the porch. "That's the wrong answer," the Boxer said. "Let's try it again. Repeat after me: I'm sorry for being such an ungrateful, spoiled little brat." He tightened his grip. "Say it, Anna. I won't let you go until you do."
Anna repeated the Boxer's words haltingly, as if she had a mouth full of marbles. Slowly he released her and she got to her knees, her face burning red with anger and shame.
"See, that was easy," the Boxer said. The big man had stepped back and was leaning against the wall of the house, watching. He looked like he was enjoying himself, and Anna wanted to slap the hell out of him.
"You said you wouldn't hurt her," she heard her mother say to the men, out of nowhere.
"Don't worry, it's nothing," the Boxer explained, as if Anna wasn't even there. "It doesn't really hurt. It's a technique we use for restraint when the girls get too rowdy. Like in judo, or wrestling."
Anna eyed her parents warily. "So where exactly are you sending me?"
Her father met her gaze and held it. "It's a twelve-week wilderness program on Andros Island, off the coast of Florida." She could tell from his voice he'd been wanting to do this for a long time. "It's called Camp Archstone. It's for adolescent girls in crisis, troubled girls like yourself. You're going to learn discipline and respect, and how to act like a young lady, instead of a sex-crazed maniac."
Twelve weeks, Anna thought. Shit! It was worse than she imagined, much worse. Surely there was some way out of it. "Reform school," she muttered bitterly. "What the fuck am I going to learn there?"
"It's not reform school," her father corrected. "It's wilderness camp."
"What about high school? It's the middle of the spring semester. The tenth grade formal is in two weeks. What about my friends? I have a life!"
"It won't be a vacation out there," her father continued, as if he hadn't heard a word she said. "It'll be hard work, both physical and mental. Behavior modification classes and athletic challenges, as well. I've been in close contact with the administrators and they're eager to help. I have faith in you, Anna, and despite our differences, I know somewhere deep inside you is the little girl I remember and love. I want that little girl back, and so does your mother."
"You won't get away with this," Anna threatened, thinking about how deluded her dad was. "I'll come back worse than before."
"No, you won't. Besides, you couldn't shame our family more than you've already done. You'll be different after Camp Archstone, I know it."
Anna looked around coldly at the assembled people. She didn't think her parents were acting out of love at all. She thought they just wanted to get rid of their problem child. "I need to call Ryan," she said.
Anna's father flinched at the mention of her boyfriend's name. "Don't even think about it. That little bastard has caused enough problems for you already. If he calls here, your mother will inform him of our decision. We've already told the school, and they support us one hundred percent. You've skipped nine days just in the last month, so they know you need help. When you come back from Archstone, they'll let you re-enroll. You'll be a semester behind, but you can make it up with hard work and summer school."
"But Ryan's my boyfriend," Anna pleaded. She was thinking that what they were doing was illegal, or against her civil rights, and she could get Ryan to call the police. "I have to say good-bye to him."
"Ryan Holloway is part of your past, not your future. And you'll talk to him over my dead body."
Anna scowled at her dad. He hated Ryan because he still thought Ryan was the one who got her pregnant. A little more than three months ago, the worst thing ever had happened, and Anna had needed to get an abortion, an event which enraged her dad and initiated the threats of reform school. Since then, things had steadily gone downhill.
"Please don't do this," Anna begged, trying one last time to sway his mind. "I'll do anything you want. I don't deserve to be sent away like this. I'm not a bad person."
"Anna, I told you. After what happened with Ryan, I warned you if you ran around with boys again, you wouldn't get another chance. I forbade you to see Ryan, yet you were out with him tonight, and three nights ago, as well. Your mother and I aren't stupid, although I know you think we are. We know what's going on, and we can't go through the pain again. Your sin has made us sinners, too. Think about us for a change, instead of yourself and your friends. And we know you've been drinking and smoking. I'm sure you're doing drugs, too, so don't deny it. You're ruining our family."
What about me! Anna wanted to scream. What did her dad know about the pain she'd gone through? Everyone said the abortion was for the best, but she was the one who'd suffered the loss. And if her dad were a true Christian, why had he sent her to get an abortion in the first place? What a hypocrite.
It was to save face, she knew, because she'd had the abortion in secret. As a prominent Christian author, it would have been hard, if not impossible, for her dad to conceal the origins of a baby born to his teen daughter out of wedlock. The scandal would have destroyed his career. Religious zealots comprised most of his readership, and they were a pretty unforgiving bunch.
"We better push off," the Boxer said. He seemed bored by all the drama. "It's a really long drive."
"What about my things, my clothes?"
"They'll be here when you get back. Your father's already given us your passport and the papers to get you to the island. Camp Archstone will provide everything else during your stay."
"But I need to get my cellphone and my laptop."
He laughed. "No chance. From now on, you'll be living the simple life. Now come on, the van's waiting." He pointed to the windowless gray Chevy Astrovan Anna would come to know so well, and she felt a surge of dread. The Boxer must have noticed because he said, "We can do this the hard way or the easy way. The easy way hurts less."
"It's for the best," Anna's mom called out timidly, as though trying to reassure herself rather than Anna. Anna realized there was nowhere for her to go but into the van. She stared at her father one last time.
"I'm going to hate you forever, Dad." She spoke the words with pure vitriol, although inside her, the feelings were much more complex. Looking at his face with hatred, when she'd once loved him so much, made her feel like her heart was ripping in two.
"Twelve weeks from now you'll be thanking me," her dad replied. "In fact, this may turn out to be the best experience of your life. May God be with you, and give you guidance. You'll be in our prayers, Anna. And remember that we did this because we love you...."
Her reverie about the events of the morning was broken as she felt the van hit a patch of rough road. She shut her eyes. Despite herself, the noise and the heat were lulling her to sleep. Several times she slipped into troubled dreams and awakened with a start when the van slowed.
After many hours, the van finally came to a stop and Anna's head snapped up. She heard the Boxer and the big man talking in the front, then the door opening on the driver's side. She listened to footsteps approach the back door of the van. If the Boxer weren't so strong, she'd try to kick him in the face when he opened the door and run past him to freedom. But she was afraid of what he might do to her. Her chest still ached from where the other man had grabbed her.
The back door opened and glaring sunlight spilled into the interior. Anna blinked.
"You can get out now."
She stood up, massaging her stiff, aching legs and hobbled to the doorway. The Boxer held out a hand to help her from the van, but she didn't take it. "Where are we?" she asked, feeling very fragile.
"Dade County regional airport, right at the tip of Florida."
Anna looked around. It was even hotter than it had been at home in Georgia. A row of small jets and prop planes sparkled on the tarmac under the bright sun.
"You can only get to Andros by air or by boat," the Boxer continued. "You can't drive to the island, so we'll be leaving you here." He pointed at one of the planes. "See that plane? Our job is done when you get on board." He coughed and spat on the ground. "You've got a big surprise waiting for you if you think today was hard." He smiled. What an asshole, Anna thought. "Boy, I wish I could see you three months from now. You'll be a whole different person by then. I've seen it happen with my own two eyes, and I know it's gonna happen to you."
Anna didn't want to be a different person. "Whatever," she muttered.
"Yeah, keep up that attitude. The harder you go in, the softer you'll come out."
Anna didn't say anything in response, because she couldn't think of a decent retort. She knew the Boxer was just taunting her, and it made her angry. Hunger and fear gnawed at her belly. She wished she could get to a phone and call Ryan because he'd know what to do, but everything was happening too fast.
She weighed her options, realizing she was fucked. She couldn't make a break for it now because the big man was watching her from the van. He'd just drive after her if she tried to start running. She was stuck, powerless, and she was filled with rage at her dad for sending her to Archstone and at her mom for being too weak to stop him. She was also angry at herself. She'd suspected her parents would ultimately try something drastic and she hadn't done anything about it. She knew she hadn't been thinking too clearly lately.
"When am I going to get some food?" she asked the Boxer. "You've been starving me all day, and I'm thirsty, and I feel like I'm going to throw up. I can't take any more of this shit."
He shook his head sadly. "The shit hasn't even begun. And believe me, you're not gonna starve if you miss a couple meals. Besides, they'll feed you on the island. It might not be the best food you've ever tasted, but you'd be surprised what people eat when they're hungry enough."
Anna knew that being denied food was a deliberate psychological ploy. It was meant to break down her defenses and make her easier to control when she arrived at the camp. Her dad often played similar mind games, and she usually responded by getting so mad that she tired herself out. Her dad brought out the worst in her. In fact, she'd talked to her therapist a lot about her relationship with him. She pictured Dr. Cochran now, a flabby old woman with thinning gray hair who wore a silver cross around her neck, and always advised her to spend more time doing homework. She wondered bleakly if Dr. Cochran had helped advise her parents in their decision to send her to Archstone.
"Hey look, your ride's here," the Boxer said. He squinted into the distance, and Anna followed his gaze. A man was approaching them from across the tarmac. The Boxer waved. "I've got your cargo!" he yelled. "You better watch out for this one. She almost got away on the trip down."
"Losing your touch?" the pilot asked when he reached them.
"I sure hope not." The Boxer shook the man's hand.
Anna stood there angrily with her thumbs in the pockets of her jeans. She wondered if there were a lot of people like the Boxer, bounty hunters basically, who rounded up wayward girls and shuffled them off to camp like prisoners of war. No doubt none of these people cared that it was her life being ruined. They were just doing their jobs.
"The weather's good. We should get there in under an hour, then back in time for dinner. A late dinner." The pilot spoke directly to the Boxer, over Anna's head. When his eyes grazed hers, they were filled with disdain, like she was nothing but trash.
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that," the Boxer was saying. "She slipped out, what can I say? Shit happens. Thanks for making the extra trip."
The pilot shrugged. "No big deal. I get overtime."
"Oh, I almost forgot. Her old man wanted me to call when we got her to the airport, just to tell him she's on her way."
The pilot grinned, showing teeth yellowed from tobacco. "She's on her way all right."
The Boxer took out his cellphone and dialed. After a moment he asked, "Mr. Wheeler?" There was a brief pause. "Yes, sir. We got her down here safe and sound." Another pause. "I know, I know. We had some trouble on the way, but everything's fine now. She's safe and unhurt. She tried to run, like some of them do. No, no. Not at all." The Boxer held out the phone to Anna. "Your father wants to talk to you."
Anna shook her head, looking down at the tarmac, face like stone. Fuck him, she thought. He hadn't wanted to hear what she had to say back home, so why should it be any different now?
"She won't talk," the Boxer said into the phone, "but I can make her if you want." A brief silence. "Okay, sure, no. We'll just put her on the plane then." He hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket, smirking. "Let's move."
With the Boxer close behind, Anna followed the pilot to the small twin-propeller airplane that would be taking her to Andros Island. The pilot climbed up on a wing and unlocked the hatch, pulling down a flight of metal steps. Anna felt like some poor, dumb animal being led to its slaughter, but she didn't know how to escape. The Boxer followed her up and into the narrow confines of the plane to make sure she was securely strapped into her seat.
He stood in the aisle and peered down at her menacingly. "Don't try to run when you get to Andros," he cautioned. "The island is the largest tract of unexplored land in the entire Western Hemisphere. If you run away on Andros, no one's ever going to find you, at least not alive. It's just three million acres of forest, and people get lost out there all the time."
Anna looked out the window, deliberately ignoring him, and thinking there was no way he or anyone else could stop her from running if she wanted to.
The Boxer sighed and shook his head. "Your attitude stinks, but fortunately you're not my problem anymore. Camp Archstone will beat the fight right out of you in no time." Then sarcastically he added, "Best of luck," before turning away and walking down the aisle without even a backward glance. He disembarked, and Anna could see him heading across the tarmac to the van. She watched him climb inside and envied his freedom.
The pilot started the propellers and the plane began to taxi out of the lot and down a narrow runway. She wondered if the plane were safe, and if there should be a copilot. Anna shut her eyes. It would serve my dad right if I died in a crash, she thought. She hated tiny planes like this one, and it made her think about what had happened to Aaliyah. One second you're alive, and then the next, nothing. It felt spooky to be alone in the passenger cabin, and the noise of the propellers was deafening. The plane shuddered as it lifted up into the air and Anna felt a sensation of pressure in her ears. Her stomach turned over because there was no food in it. When she looked out the window, she saw the ground receding beneath her at a sharp angle.
Soon the plane was flying low above the ocean, the deep green water punctuated by whitecaps gleaming in the setting sun, and an occasional sailboat. The water stretched for miles in every direction without any sign of land. Although the flight would only take an hour, it seemed nearly endless to Anna. She was too nervous to be bored. Her thoughts alternated between hatred of her dad and concern about the future. She wondered how she'd make it through the next three months, and what the other girls would be like. Probably mean bitches who beat up their grandmas, she thought. Maybe they'd beat her up, too. Anna sometimes didn't get on too well with other girls, and she'd never felt confident at negotiating the shifting allegiances of her female friends. She worried that on the island she wouldn't be able to hold her own against a vicious bunch of troubled girls.
She also thought about everything she'd miss from home, Ryan being first on the list. Then there was hanging out with her friends, shopping at the mall, going to parties, and watching The O.C., not to mention all the movies she wanted to see. Even simple pleasures like grabbing an ice-cream cone from Ben & Jerry's were gone.
Looking at the clouds and the ocean through the window made her wish she'd been allowed to bring her camera. It was sitting in its brown case under her bed at home, where it would remain gathering dust for the next three months. Taking photos was one thing she was good at. She thought about Mr. Spate, her photography teacher at school, and wondered what he was doing. Mr. Spate was a complicated issue because indirectly he was the cause of her being sent away. She decided not to obsess about him anymore, as she'd done for the past few months, because it was just too painful.
The plane dipped and Anna's stomach rose into her chest. She thought she might throw up, but then the plane leveled off. In the distance she could finally see land, a mass on the horizon that made her shoulders tense up. It looked dark and ominous. The plane banked left, heading toward the center of the island.
So this must be Andros, she thought, trying to suppress her fear. The pilot flew even lower as they got closer, and she began to see small boats in the water. Unlike the gleaming yachts off the coast of Florida, these vessels were old and ramshackle. She could see people on the decks, dark-skinned islanders small as ants, traveling the water with nets.
She heard static, and the pilot spoke on the radio to the control tower. Out the window the water gave way to land and Anna felt a growing sense of despair. The plane flew over miles of dense forest with no signs of civilization. It looked worse than the islands on Survivor and Lost, and that was pretty fucking bad. Occasionally there was a clearing with a few shacks on it, but for the most part the island seemed completely uninhabited, just like the Boxer had said.
The plane began its final descent and Anna tensed in her seat, making sure the seat belt was fastened. She couldn't stand landings. When she'd flown with her parents to San Diego three summers ago, she'd started freaking out and her mother held her hand until they were on the ground. That trip seemed a whole lifetime away, and Anna was sad that so much had changed since then. She wasn't sure how everything had gotten so out of control and gone so horribly wrong.
When the plane touched ground, Anna opened her eyes and saw trees rushing by on either side of the runway. She realized she was holding her breath and exhaled in a big burst of air. The plane slowed and eventually came to a shuddering, rattling stop. Looking out the window, Anna saw several low, red-brick buildings, and three rusted planes in various states of disrepair. She realized that this was the airport. There was a black pickup truck parked on the gravel near a building, with a man leaning back on the hood.
The pilot opened the door to the cockpit, barely acknowledging her presence. She wondered what he'd do if she attacked him and tried to hijack the plane. She seriously considered this plan for a moment, but then discarded the idea as impractical. She didn't want to get hurt, and thought there'd probably be better opportunities for escape later on. She unbuckled her seat belt and stood up slowly as the pilot opened the hatch and lowered the steps to the ground. He glanced over at her.
"Ladies first," he said mockingly.
Anna walked down the aisle and then down the stairs that led to the runway. The first thing that hit her was the unbelievable heat. The air was so hot and humid, it seemed to have a living presence, and she felt like she was in the heart of some tropical jungle nation, a thousand miles from America instead of a couple hundred.
"So what happens to me now?" she asked, confused and exhausted.
The pilot pointed. The man who'd been leaning on the hood of the pickup was walking toward them. "You came late so you missed the bus," the pilot explained. "Everyone else is already there, hours ago. Henry's gonna take you to Archstone in his truck."
Great, Anna thought. More driving. That was just what she needed. She stood there awkwardly, angry and afraid.
"Anna Wheeler?" the man asked when he reached them. He was old, Anna thought, maybe sixty-something. His hair was gray and he had a salt-and-pepper beard.
"Yeah," Anna said rudely. "Who are you?" It had been the longest day of her life and she didn't feel like being nice. If everyone thought she was a crazy bitch, then she might as well act like one.
"How are you holding up?" The old man smiled at her and stuck out his hand.
She wanted to slap it away, but instead she just didn't bother to shake it. The man let it drop to his side.
"I'm doing lousy," Anna told him. "I'm pissed off and I'm tired." She swatted away a mosquito.
"Well, are you hungry, too?"
"Yeah." She couldn't deny that, as much as she wanted to.
"Then you better eat something. I've got a couple PBJ sandwiches in the truck, and I've got an apple in there, too, if you're interested. And if you're thirsty there's a can of Coke, though it's probably not cold anymore."
Anna's mouth watered, but she was still glad she'd refused to shake the man's hand, even though he'd offered her food. It was out of principle, because the way she saw it, anyone involved with Camp Archstone was an enemy of hers.
"My name's Henry O'Connor," the old man said. "I'm going to drive you out to the camp."
Anna nodded. Despite herself, she was thinking about how good those sandwiches would taste.
"We can chat in the car, okay?" He guided Anna across the tarmac and toward his pickup truck. He opened the passenger door, and Anna slid into the comfortably worn seat as he walked around to the driver's side. He started the truck up and began driving.
The road was bumpy and the old truck trundled along slowly. Anna devoured the sandwiches as they drove in silence, thinking it was the best food she'd ever tasted. It was rapidly getting darker, but Anna could make out trees lining the sides of the dirt road, thick walls of vegetation. In some places dark vines hung overhead like electrical cables. At one point she saw burned-out cars, and figures in huts made from scrap wood along the edge of the forest. She felt a chill despite the heat, and hoped she was safe in the truck with the old man.
Somehow he noticed, because he said, "There's lots of poverty on Andros." Then he added, "Hey, you mind if I smoke?"
She shook her head. She considered asking him for a cigarette, but decided not to. She didn't want to owe this man anything, although now that she'd eaten, she actually craved a smoke. She figured he'd probably refuse to give her one if she asked anyway.
Henry fished in his jacket pocket, extracted a pack of Marlboros, and lit one up. The truck passed another shantytown, the huts lit up with tiny lights, and in a second it was gone. It was pretty clear to Anna the island was no tropical paradise.
"Are you feeling any better after that food?"
"Yeah," Anna replied, trying to make her voice sound cold and detached, older. She was determined to say as little as possible.
"Well, that's good." The old man took a long drag on his cigarette. "I'm the last kind voice you're going to hear for a while. You probably won't pay me much mind, but maybe you could hear me out anyway as we drive. Even if you just do it to humor me."
Anna was too tired to do anything else so she nodded like a punch-drunk fighter. "Sure."
"I used to be a military man, just like your dad. That's right, I know all about you, Anna. The camp has a file on every incoming cadet. I spent thirty years in the army, but I'm retired now and live on the island, mainly for the bonefishing. I've got a house outside Nicholl's Town. That's the largest settlement on Andros, a whole six hundred people." The smell of smoke was filling the hot confines of the car, and Anna found it soothing. Her arms and legs felt heavy as lead after the stress of the day.
"I'd do anything for my kids," Henry continued. "And my grandkids." He looked over at Anna. "Anything to stop them from messing up their lives, even if that decision was painful for me, understand?"
Anna nodded. It sounded suspiciously like what her dad had said before the Boxer and his companion hauled her away.
"Family is what counts at the end of the day. Your parents must love you very much, or they wouldn't have sent you here. You probably think it's the worst thing that's ever happened to you, I'm sure. But if you keep your head on straight you'll get through these twelve weeks and learn something about yourself in the process." He patted her on the leg in a way that was no doubt meant to be paternal, but it made her flinch. "I know it's hard, Anna. I know you've been through hell today."
"Do you?" she muttered.
"Of course. You got ripped out of your house, sent here to a place without friends, where you don't know a soul. That's got to be pretty rough."
Even though she understood she was being patronized, she suddenly felt like crying. The feeling was unexpected, because she felt more angry than sad, but it was there nonetheless.
Maybe it's because I'm so tired, she thought. It was pretty dumb to let the old man's platitudes affect her, but they did, like one of those cheesy movies on Lifetime or Oxygen that her mom watched. She wished he wasn't trying to be so nice to her because it just made everything worse. She bit her tongue, hoping the clarity of pain would wash away her unwanted emotions, but it just made her tongue hurt. How strange that the old man's kindness brought tears as readily as the torture of the van.
"If you look at Camp Archstone as a learning experience, then you'll do fine," Henry told her. "Kids get stuck in their ways even more than us old folks do. Change is hard, but sometimes it's necessary. The woman who runs this place, Miss Richards, knows what she's doing. She started Camp Archstone in eighty-six, after her daughter had a few troubles of her own. She's turned some lives around, I'll tell you that for free. I work for the camp as a volunteer, though I usually don't do the driving. I wouldn't work for a place I didn't believe in."
Anna got her emotions under control, and blinked. "Well, what if I think you're full of shit?" she asked. "What if I don't like the idea of getting sent to a wilderness camp in the middle of nowhere? What if I hate my parents and all their religious bullshit? What then?" She sighed angrily and pressed herself into the seat, trying to make herself small. The old man probably had no idea what really went on at Archstone.
Anna, on the other hand, knew all about wilderness programs. The first time her dad had threatened her with one, right after the abortion, she'd Googled them and IM'd all her friends to see if they knew anything about them. It turned out places like Archstone represented everything she hated and everything her father held dear: conformity, military values, and the so-called great outdoors. She and her father were polar opposites when it came to those topics. She remembered it hadn't been that way when she was young, that she and her dad had once been good friends, as hard as that was to believe. But as soon as she turned thirteen, and developed a mind and a will of her own, things had started to change. Suddenly her grades were never high enough, she was being lazy with her chores, and she was always in trouble for breaking curfew.
Worst of all, her father went insane whenever any boys phoned the house asking for her, even if they were just friends. He'd begun calling her into his study to read her passages from the Bible like they did in Sunday school. He'd even assigned her readings from one of his own Christian books, but she'd never done any of it. It wasn't that she had no faith, it was just that her dad's obsession was too overwhelming. He acted like he owned God, and there was no place for Anna when it came to religion, unless she were willing to do everything his way.
Then there was the pregnancy, of course. She understood why her dad had flipped out about that one, but maybe if he'd been a better father it never would have happened. Her dad just wasn't the kind of person who was emotionally available to her on any level. Often he wasn't even literally available, because he was too busy writing and promoting his books. Her mother was also part of the problem. Anna could never talk to her mom about personal stuff because her mom just went straight to her dad with it. That's how he found out about her pregnancy in the first place.
Her mom was scared of her father, Anna knew that much, so maybe that was why her mom could never keep a secret. Anna often speculated that the only reason her parents stayed together was because her mom was too frightened to stand up to her dad. He treated everyone he met like they were in the military and he was their commanding officer. Unfortunately, since his books had become so successful, his attitude had only worsened.
Henry finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. Anna noticed he didn't seem as friendly to her after she'd sworn at him, and she felt pleased that she'd gotten to him. They drove in silence for a long stretch.
"Well, here we are," he said finally. "This is it. Camp Archstone."
Anna sat upright in her seat. She'd spent the whole day cramped in vehicles and was eager to get outside, but her heart skipped a beat when she saw the place that was going to be her home for the next three months.
Jesus, she thought, it really is a prison, like a fucking Alcatraz. Although it was nearly dark, she could make out tall gates with barbed wire strung across the top, and two tall structures that looked like guard towers with spotlights on them. There was a buzzing sound and the gates opened outward automatically. Henry pulled the car through and the gates swung shut behind them with an ominous clanking sound. When a man in uniform appeared at the driver's side window, Henry rolled it down.
"I got the girl here," he said, and the guard waved them over to a parking space next to a military-style barracks. To Anna the entire place looked like a military base in miniature. The buildings were ugly and squat, some built from faded gray brick, and the whole enclosure was encircled in a wide perimeter by a high chain-link fence. An American flag, of all things, stood proudly in the center of a patch of green grass, illuminated by a yellow spotlight that cut through the darkness.
The passenger door to the pickup truck flew open and the guard shoved a bright light into Anna's face.
"Anna Wheeler!" he barked in military cadence. "Is that you?"
"Yes." She looked straight ahead, blinking because the light hurt. I will not be scared, she told herself, willing her legs not to shake. I will not let this asshole intimidate me, and I definitely won't show any signs of fear.
"Yes, sir!" she called out. So it was beginning. She could play this game as well as anyone after living under her dad's rigid set of rules.
"That's right. You will address me as 'sir' from now on, and don't you forget it or I'll be forced to remind you. Now disembark from that vehicle at once and stand at attention."
Anna swung her legs around and stepped out in the sweltering Bahamian night, the air so thick it felt like she was in a swimming pool.
The man standing in front of her had a bristling crew cut and a protruding chin. He was gangly and ugly, with a small mouth and big nose set between narrow eyes.
"Do you know what standing at attention means?" he yelled.
"I don't think you do! Pull those shoulders back and stick out your chest." He walked around her, inspecting her posture as she fumed inwardly. "Anna Wheeler, my name is Counselor Adler. For the next twelve weeks you belong to me. You do nothing unless I say so. I control your every action and your every thought, understand? You failed to show respect for your parents back home, so now it's my duty to teach it to you. You've lost your rights as an individual because you weren't mature enough to handle them." He recited the words like a robot, as though he'd said them a million times before. "At Camp Archstone you'll learn responsibility, discipline, and self-respect. You will be remade into a self-sufficient young lady who can bring pride to her family, instead of sorrow and shame. Do I make myself clear, Cadet Wheeler?"
"Yes, sir," Anna parroted back. Her head ached. Cadet. How ludicrous. She wondered how she'd bear three months of this torment without losing her mind. There had to be a way out.
"Follow me, Cadet Wheeler. You will be assigned a uniform and a duffel bag. These are the only possessions you'll be allowed during your stay here at the camp. Afterward, I'll show you to your sleeping quarters. Bedtime here is early nine o'clock on the nose, because you'll be getting up at five a.m. Your fellow class of cadets are already in their bunks, because they arrived here on time. None of them tried to run away on I-95 like a lunatic."
Shit, Anna thought. He obviously knew all about her escape attempt. This was bad news because now she'd probably be marked as a troublemaker and singled out for extra abuse. She'd have to watch her step and bide her time, until she could figure out a way to escape again.
"Come this way," Adler instructed. She obeyed, following him toward a long, wooden building, all vertical slats and peeling white paint, like an old barn. She looked back to see Henry pulling his pickup truck out of the lot and toward the gate. At least he'd tried to be nice to her, even if it was all just an act, and she felt vaguely sorry to see him go.
Adler opened the door of the building and they stepped into a room with stacks of clothes folded on shelves against the walls, and rows of metal lockers beneath them.
"What's your shoe size?" he asked, as she stood in the doorway nervously.
Adler rummaged in a crate below one of the shelves and pulled out a pair of scuffed black boots with thick soles. They looked like something an old man would wear.
"What size pants?"
Anna shifted from foot to foot. "Five."
"Don't mumble. Five, you said?"
Adler's face contorted and he spun toward her, just as she realized she'd forgotten to add the "sir." "Goddamn it, yes what?" he yelled, the words echoing off the walls.
"Yes, sir," she said hastily. She was very aware she was alone with this man, in a foreign country, in his domain.
He stared at her with a look of total disgust. "Forget again and you'll get two demerits. Get six and then you'll be disciplined. Physically." He walked over to the shelf and picked out a uniform for her, muttering angry epithets to himself.
Anna was horrified to see the uniform consisted of a tank top, pants, and a jacket, all in bright, ugly orange. I'll look just like a convict, she thought. Like one of those work-release prisoners picking up trash at the side of the road. She sometimes saw them outside Atlanta and they always gave her the creeps. Now she was one of them.
"These are your clothes for the next twelve weeks," Adler declared as he thrust them at her chest. She took them from him, holding them in both hands. "Your old clothes and shoes will remain here in a locker until you're discharged. Everything in your pockets will be placed in a plastic bag and held until then, as well. From now on, you'll get fresh underwear and socks daily in your barracks, and clean uniforms once every three days. Just so you know, the camp works on a system of tiers, and laundry is done by level-two cadets. You missed Miss Richards's orientation today, but to make things clear, you are a level one. The lowest level. The higher the tier, the more responsibilities you have, but also the more freedom, like phone privileges and television time. You also get to wake up later. Most cadets work their way up to level three before they graduate. You get to advance a level every four weeks, unless you receive more than fifteen demerits in that time period, understood?"
The numbers made Anna's head spin. She didn't even want to understand their ridiculous, convoluted system, but she answered, "Yes, sir," anyway.
"Good," Adler said. "Now strip down to your panties and put on your uniform."
Anna hesitated. "What?" She didn't want to challenge him, but she felt very uncomfortable. There was no changing room in sight, and she wasn't about to do a striptease in front of this guy. Surely there was some sexual harassment law he was breaking.
"Do it!" Adler snapped, his face rigid. "I'm not interested in how you look, missy. I've seen enough tits and bare asses to last a lifetime. I just need to check and see if you're concealing anything. Alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs are all contraband, as are any weapons. No jewelry or makeup, either. Acquisition or possession of any of these items during your stay at Archstone will result in multiple demerits. Now get those clothes off, ASAP."
Anna reluctantly placed her new outfit and boots on the table. She sat on a folding metal chair and slowly took off her sneakers. Then she stood and peeled off her shirt under Adler's unflinching male gaze. Without her shoes on, the guard seemed even taller.
It's just like being at the doctor, she told herself, but she didn't believe it. It was a violation, and she felt self-conscious and exposed. Anna put her old shirt on the table and picked up her new orange tank top. She put it on. The fabric felt coarse and the top was a size too large, but she didn't think complaining would get her very far.
"Pants," Adler said. "Come on. Hurry up."
Anna undid her belt and let her jeans drop to the floor. She slid into her new pants and zipped them up. Like the shirt, they felt baggy and scratchy. She sat on the chair and put on the boots, which fit a little better than the rest of the outfit, but were still uncomfortable. They smelled bad, too, like someone else had worn them recently. She picked up the orange jacket. With each item she put on, she felt increasingly dehumanized. She wondered if they'd just assign her a number, and not even call her by name anymore.
"Stand up," Adler said. "Let me have a look at you." She stood. He moved over to her and adjusted her collar, deliberately invading her personal space. "Much better. I like you in orange." He stepped back and faced her. "Your days here on the island will be spent in constant activity and service. You'll be attending classes five days a week, and completing individual and group projects. You are now on Camp Archstone time, which means you won't have any time to cause trouble. You'll learn the meaning and value of hard work, even if we have to shove it down your throat." He smiled grimly. "Because you were three hours late today, that means you owe me those three hours. You'll pay for them in hard labor, because no one leaves the camp without doing her fair share."
Anna felt a headache growing above her eyes with every command that he uttered. She hated the way he stood, his shoulders back and chest pumped out like her dad, like a parody of a man. Who was this prick to tell her what to do? She'd love the chance to tell him what she thought of him, but she was smart enough to keep quiet. She knew she needed to rest and conserve her strength until she could figure out a loophole in the system. There was no way she was spending a week at Camp Archstone, let alone three whole months.
"Tomorrow is the first full day of activities," Adler continued. "You'll be meeting the other girls in your class and starting the program. You'll be briefed about the island and the camp with everyone else after breakfast." Adler picked up Anna's old clothes and put them in a locker with her shoes while she stood there woodenly. "I'll take you to the barracks now."
She followed him out of the building and back into the night. It was hot and the noise of the crickets and the other insects swelled in the darkness. They walked down a dirt path to a long, flat-roofed brick structure with no windows. Adler opened the front door and Anna went inside. It was dark in the barracks, and she saw a bald, muscular man sitting at a table, reading a paperback by the light of a small desk lamp. She guessed he was another guard, or rather a counselor, as they called themselves in a lame attempt to disguise their true role. Anna thought most of them were probably just creeps who got off on telling girls what to do. And who knew? Maybe some of them liked being around girls her age, out in the wilderness where they could do whatever they wanted to them.
Small lights rimmed the edges of the room, like in a movie theater. Anna saw rows of bunk beds extending back into the barracks, and noticed swaddled forms in them, lumps under the blankets. She felt nervous and regretted her escape attempt earlier. The other girls had all seen one another and met, if just for a few hours. Now she'd be the newcomer in the environment, and if Camp Archstone were anything like high school, new kids didn't get treated too well. Even though she was only a little bit late, girls teamed up fast, and all kinds of cliques had probably already formed.
"This is Counselor Ellis," Adler said to her, motioning to the man at the desk. "You'll be under twenty-four-hour surveillance here, so there's no point trying to run."
Counselor Ellis looked up at Anna with distrustful eyes. "You're the last one here. The bunks are arranged alphabetically, and there are twenty-eight girls in your class, so you're at the end, in bunk fourteen B. That's the bottom one. Put your boots at the foot of the bed, and roll your socks inside them. You'll find an empty duffel bag underneath the bunk. Put your pants and jacket inside it. You sleep in your underwear and tank top here, so get used to it. There's no sleeping in the nude. The bathroom's at the front, right behind me. You'll need to ask permission to use it during the night, and if you're in there for more than five minutes, I'm coming after you."
Anna stood for a moment, unsure of what to do. It was like she'd stepped out of her own reality and into a prison movie. What the hell did my dad get me into, she wondered.
"You heard the man," Adler said. "Fourteen B. C'mon."
Anna walked down the center aisle, past the numbered bunks and their restless occupants. It was only 9:30. Sometimes she hadn't even eaten dinner by that time, so going to sleep so early seemed insane. Obviously a lot of the other girls felt the same way, because she was aware of eyes staring at her from the darkness. She ignored them and looked straight ahead. At the end of the room, she saw a bunk with no. 14 painted on the floor in front of it in reflective white paint, so she sat down on the bottom half. She noticed there was someone asleep on the top, but didn't get a good look at her. As Anna took off her boots, she heard Adler and Ellis talking in low voices, and wondered if it was about her.
When her boots and pants were put away, she pulled back the covers, just a white sheet and a thin brown blanket. Her whole body sighed with relief as she relaxed onto the bed. The mattress was hard and lumpy, and the pillow felt like a block of concrete under her neck, but she didn't care. She pulled the sheet up and stared at the underside of the top bunk.
She could hear the sounds of the other girls tossing in their beds and the occasional whisper. From outside came the drone of the crickets and what sounded like the buzzing of a cicada. The girl above her rolled over suddenly, and the whole metal frame of the bunk bed creaked. Anna turned on her side and curled up, watching the lighted area by the doorway. She saw Adler leave and Ellis return to his book.
Could this really be her life? Torn from everything and everyone she loved and locked up on some desolate island, like no one wanted her? She wondered what her dad was doing. Probably having a celebration, overjoyed she was no longer around. Anna had no doubt her father's conscience was completely clear and he saw no clash between his religious beliefs and how he'd treated his own daughter.
And what about Ryan, Anna wondered. It made her sick to think he might not know where she was. They'd had plans to meet tonight, too, at their friend Kevin's place. She was sure he had no idea what had happened to her yet. Could she even trust her parents to tell him the truth about where they'd sent her? Knowing them, they'd probably lie to Ryan and tell him anything to get him to go away.
She also thought about Mr. Spate. He was sound asleep, she was sure, in his tidy little apartment back in Atlanta. He's the one who should be here, Anna reflected. The seducer, not the seduced...
Eventually her thoughts gave way to the demands of her body and she fell into an uneasy sleep.
Copyright © 2005 by Alex McAulay