By Chef Pippinacious
They took Grace away a few days later. A woman introduced as Nurse Bianca swept in, made a show of examining Grace’s swollen, purple ankle, and then had Ashley and Carolyn help her move Grace into the wheelchair they’d brought with them. Grace mewled in pain and was limp in their arms, her eyes rolling and glassy.
“She’s going to be just fine.” Nurse Bianca assured us on their way out, “A few days in the infirmary and she’ll be right back here with all of you!”
But she didn’t come back and, the longer she was gone, the mores restless the rest of us became. We whispered our theories in the dead of night, that Grace had been left somewhere for someone else to find, that she’d been chained up and left to suffer alone, where we couldn’t see, that she’d been killed.
“Any of us could be next.” Gloria said one night.
After witnessing the depths the counselors were willing to go, something in Gloria had snapped. She was moody, withdrawn, angry, and obsessed with the idea it was only a matter of time before we all shared Grace’s fate. Or worse. I didn’t disagree.
“But I follow the rules!” Diana squeaked.
“So? They’ll change the rules. Don’t be stupid, they don’t want us to succeed. They want us to break.”
Inez started to sob quietly in the dark. She didn’t do much else lately. I understood her fear, I shared it, and I wanted to cry too, but it didn’t help, so I just stayed quiet, sagging against my handcuffs.
“How long have we been here?” Gloria asked.
“Two weeks? A little over?” Morgan said uncertainly. Time was hard to keep track of, harder still when lack of food and sleep made our thoughts slippery and hard to hold on to.
“Not even half way…”
Gloria trailed off and the room settled into an uneasy silence. A month left. A month of “activities” and insults and starvation. A month with a group of psychopaths hellbent on torturing the fat out of us. I couldn’t do it, I knew I couldn’t; I was already so weak, in so much pain. The thought of being made to endure more made me tremble.
The day the rain came, all eyes were fixed on the door. The air was tense, stifling, and I felt like a heavy weight was sitting on my chest, making it hard to breathe. Every snap of a twig outside the cabin had my heart racing, every gust of wind that shook the door made me shrink against my stained pillow, certain Ashley had come for us. The longer we had to wait, the more anxious I became.
But it wasn’t until the rain had died down and the clouds parted that Ashley and Carolyn appeared, all smiles in their bright yellow slickers and boots.
“Who’s ready for our next activity?” Carolyn asked, hands clasped together in anticipation.
Ashley held up a large metal pail, bent and rusted from years of use, in one hand, “Any guesses on what it could be? Anyone?”
I pressed my cracked lips into a thin line to keep my chin from quivering. Whatever they had prepared for us was no doubt degrading, exhausting, and I didn’t know where I was going to muster the strength to complete it. My limbs felt like lead, just picking them up was becoming a challenge, and any movement sent ripples of sharp pain through my head, blurring my vision and leaving me reeling. If I couldn’t do it, if I was too slow or too feeble, what would they do to me?
My gaze slid to their piggie prods, always in hand, and I swallowed hard.
“No one wants to guess?” Carolyn pouted theatrically, “Well, fine, lazy piggies! We’re going hunting! For you to really appreciate your dinner, you’re going to have to catch it! But don’t worry, we know it would be too hard for you to actually catch anything that’s capable of walking away, so we’re keeping it simple! Worms! Little piggies just love rolling around in the mud, so this should be extra fun, huh?”
“I know my little piggies are looking forward to a big dinner, so I’m sure they’ll catch lots! Come on, up, up, up!”
The handcuffs fell away and Ashley used the end of her prod to poke me out of bed. I kept waiting for the snap of electricity to vibrate through my body, but it never came, and I fell in line behind Morgan, relieved.
“What’s wrong, little piggie?” Carolyn was standing beside Gloria’s bed, looking down at the girl.
Gloria had sat up, but she was hunched over, her face buried in her hands. Miserable sobs wracked her shoulders and she was gasping for air, almost hyperventilating. Carolyn traded an eyeroll with Ashley and crouched, resting her free hand on Gloria’s knee.
“Ok, ok shhhh, it’s ok.” She said tenderly, “You can cry all you want, but you know what? That won’t make you any less fat. So get your ass up and get in line, ok?”
The bestial roar that followed had us falling back, away from the pair. As soon as the sound had left her lips, Gloria had thrown herself bodily against Carolyn, her hands tearing at the coordinator’s face. Her nails, blackened by dirt and grime, raked down pale skin, and they both fell back against the wall. The piggie prod was dropped in her shock and rolled under the bed. There was a brief scuffle and then they were on the floor, Gloria using her weight to keep Carolyn pinned beneath her.
Carolyn flailed, her hands shoving at Gloria, and she shrieked for Ashley to help her. Ashley shook off her surprise and charged forward, piggie prod raised pointed at Gloria. I was rooted to the spot, my mouth dry, trembling. They were going to be mad! We were going to be punished! What was Gloria thinking? My mind was a web of terror, catching and encasing all else. I clutched the foot board behind me, shaking my head as if to deny I had any part of this.
Inez lurched forward, her eyes wide, mouth open, bellowing, and she grabbed at Ashley from behind. Ashley brought her elbow back sharply once, twice, and then tried to bring the prod around, but Inez threw her hard against the end of a bed, doubling her over, and yanked her head back by her hair. She pulled hard until Ashley was screeching and her grip on the prod had loosened. She yanked the prod from Ashley’s hand and threw it out of her reach.
When Ashley craned her neck around, looking over her shoulder for help, I saw, for the first time, fear glittering in her eyes.
Carolyn had managed to wiggle half way out from under Gloria and headbutt her sharply across the nose. Gloria yelped, stunned, and Carolyn, clearly also dazed, flopped on her stomach and started to scramble across the floor, towards the bed her prod was under. She had her hand outstretched, reaching desperately, when Morgan’s foot came slamming down on it. Again and again she stomped until Carolyn withdrew it and flung herself backwards, her hand cradled against her chest.
Gloria was on her again, one arm wrapped around her throat, her free hand punching wildly at Carolyn’s head. Carolyn tried to ward off the blows, but Gloria shook her viciously, compressing her neck. Ashley was crushed beneath the footboard and Inez’s girth, her face shoved down into the mattress and its filth. Every time she tried to push herself up, Inez delivered a harsh blow to her side.
Carolyn saw Ashley’s prod was close to her and, with a strangled yell, managed to sink her teeth into Gloria’s arm. Reflexively, Gloria pulled back just slightly, enough for Carolyn to drive her shoulder into her chest, and then Carolyn was diving forward.
Carolyn reared back, her expression belligerent, disbelieving, and pained. Blood had started to fall in a small trickle down the side of her face from the gash left by the piggie prod. Morgan stood over her, her eyes bright and feverish with fury, and swung Ashley’s prod again. Carolyn crumpled to the floor.
Diana and I had huddled together, watching with horror, our mouths hanging open. It didn’t seem real, it couldn’t be real. Gloria hauled herself to her feet, her breathing ragged, and she swayed unsteadily.
“What did you do?” Diana whispered, her gaze fixed on Carolyn’s unmoving body.
“I’m getting out.” Gloria said, “Come on, help me get her onto the bed.”
“Is she dead?” I dared to ask.
“No, unfortunately. I can still see her breathing.” Gloria waved impatiently at us, “Morgan, Natalie! Come on!”
I tore myself away from Diana’s side and, mechanically, barely aware of what I was doing, I grabbed one of Carolyn’s arms and we dragged her over to Gloria’s bed.
The handcuffs clicking into place around her wrists was one of the most satisfying sounds I’d ever heard.
“What do we do with Ashley?” Inez asked anxiously. Now that the excitement had died down and the initial rush had worn off, she was starting to struggle with keeping Ashley held down.
Ashley’s cheeks were wet with tears when we wrenched her up. She was a babbling, blubbering mess, trying to justify her actions, telling us everything she’d done was for our own good. Gloria put a stop to that by yanking off Ashley’s sock and shoving it in her mouth. Diana kept apologizing to her while the rest of us cuffed her wrists around the headboard.
“I followed the rules! I was good! I’m so sorry! They made me!”
“Shut the hell up already, ok?” Gloria snapped.
“They’re going to find us, the rest of them! They’re going to find us and punish us!”
Gloria reared back an delivered a resounding slap to Diana’s face, “Shut up or we’re leaving you here.”
“Do it! Then they’ll know, I was good! It wasn’t my idea!” Diana, unfazed, leapt eagerly back into bed and looked at the rest of us expectantly, her arms held towards the handcuffs.
“What now?” Morgan asked after we’d locked Diana back in, her face drawn and pale. She looked out the window, across camp grounds that seemed impossibly large, and then back to Gloria.
“We go.” She said, but it was clear she hadn’t yet thought this far ahead. She sagged against the doorframe, rubbing her temples and wrinkling her brow, trying to collect her thoughts.
“We need a phone.” I offered, trying to make up for how little help I’d been, “We need to call the cops.”
“The office would have a phone.” Inez said.
“Everyone has a phone!” Gloria said suddenly, the slow realization that we’d all come to camp with cells working its way through the weariness.
“Yeah, but they’re all locked in the closet with the rest of our stuff.”
“What about them?” I nodded to Ashley, who shook her head, trying to mumble her denial around the sock.
Gloria was on her immediately, digging in her pockets.
She came up with a purple rhinestone covered cell, half charged with a single bar. We all stared at it, almost unable to believe it was real, and more than one of us broke down, weeping, hugging each other like we’d just discovered some long lost treasure.
And then Gloria dialed 911.
Forty-four girls were found in the camp after the police had finished going through the cabins. Carolyn had to be wheeled out of ours on a stretcher and the small part of me that hadn’t gone numb thrilled at the sight of the handcuff linking her to its railing.
The next few hours passed in a blur of red and blue lights, a sea of concerned faces, and a million questions that sailed in one ear and straight out the other. We were allowed to return, one by one, into our bunks to collect our things after they got the closets opened. I grabbed my bag, paused only long enough to stuff one additional souvenir from beneath Gloria’s bed under my clothes, and went back out to wait for my parents.
“I thought you’d be…thinner.” Mom said as she and Dad, who wasted no time in enveloping me in a crushing hug, walked up later that evening.
I gaped at her, wondering if she was seeing the same scene I was: cops, traumatized children, staff being driven away in the backseats of cruisers. I was filthy, haggard, barely able to stand on my own, and her only concern was my weight. Dad wrapped an arm protectively around my shoulders and scowled at her, but predictably, didn’t reproach her. I let him guide me back to the car, Mom’s disappointment burning my ears, and I watched the camp fade into the distance as we drove home.
“Huh, did you know they operated out of different locations every few year? Said it was so they could bring the program to different regions and make it more accessible.” Dad said over breakfast, the morning paper spread out in front of him, “Cops say rotating kept the complaints against them spread out and made it harder to get evidence. By the time anyone investigated, they’d already cleaned up and cleared out! Doesn’t matter though, everyone who worked there is being charged now thanks to what they found.”
In the two months since I’d been home, he’d been following the case against the camp very closely and keeping me updated. The only thing I’d cared about was finding that Grace had been taken to a hospital by Nurse Bianca and that’s where the cops had found her, underfed, dehydrated, a little delirious, but alive. Beyond that, I didn’t want the story, I didn’t want to know, I just wanted to put it behind me. I’d tried telling him that, but he insisted on sharing.
“Ok, Dad, I’m going for a walk.”
He waved me off, engrossed in the latest article, and I headed upstairs to change.
I’d started working out more since I’d recovered, channeling my attention into slowly improving my health instead of focusing on all the pain I was still working through. Mom continued to berate me, but after dealing with Ashley, I found her extremely easy to block out. The therapist I had begun going to said that was a Big Deal.
Behind the closed door to my bedroom, I dug around in my closet, past my clothes and the stash of untouched junk food, and pulled out the towel wrapped souvenir I’d kept hidden since my return.
Carolyn’s piggie prod weighed heavily in my hands. I pressed the trigger, listening to the hum of electricity flowing through it and remembering its bite. I hadn’t known why I’d taken it, it had just been an impulse, but now I knew. It served as a reminder; whenever I felt like I couldn’t take that extra step, couldn’t resist that last bite, I’d think of the prod, and I knew I could overcome anything.
I still had nightmares, still fought with myself daily over what I could eat, how ugly I was, how much of a little piggie I was, but Dr. Sharp said that was all normal after what I’d been through and, given time, it would fade asking as I kept looking ahead. I rewrapped the prod and put it back in its place and I pulled out my running shoes.
I was on my way to my healthier, happier self. One tiny, manageable step at a time.