Counting Backwards CHAPTER 1
Three weeks ago I tried to run away from home. Now all I want is to go back.
With my thumbnail I etch my name—TAYLOR—on the blue vinyl seat in front of me, over and over in the exact same spot, because the impression lasts only as long as it takes to get from T to R. I try to keep my mind blank, but I keep thinking about the last time I saw my mom. It was two days ago in the courtroom, where she sat, silent as a turtle, while my father asked the judge’s permission for me to carry out my probation in a “maximum-security facility” where I could receive “intense psychiatric care.” And the judge, who doesn’t know me at all, agreed.
I pull the Sunny Meadows brochure from my pocket and smooth out the creases left over from when my dad first gave it to me and I crushed it into a ball. According to the brochure, Sunny Meadows is a “therapeutic boarding school” in the business of “creating bright futures for exceptional youth,” but there’s nothing exceptional about what it takes to get into this place—anger, depression, substance abuse,
eating disorders, ADHD, OCD . . . The list goes on and on, but none of that is me. I’m normal. I’m fine.
The transport van exits off the interstate in Valdosta, and I stick my nose to the cracked window to get some fresh air because I suddenly feel nauseous. It’s October now, but the weather is still hot and muggy. I study the landscape of gently rolling pastures as we wind down country roads. I catalog landmarks and signs—New Light Baptist Church, Shady Pines Mobile Home Park, a flaking billboard that says JESUS LOVES YOU. There’s no map on the brochure and no address either, “for privacy reasons,” but I need to know where they’re taking me, just in case I have to find my own way out.
The van pulls into a long, paved driveway, and my chest tightens as my eyes meet with a massive wrought-iron gate.
A gate. A guard. And a chain-link fence that surrounds the campus on all sides. That photo was not in the brochure. The fence seems even higher than the one at juvie. As the gate opens, my heart flutters and I massage the knot in my chest, trying to loosen it up, trying to breathe.
The driveway snakes through a huge lawn and dead-ends at a three-story brick building. Spanish moss clings to the branches of the live oak trees and beckons like little ghost hands. The dormitory and its surrounding buildings could pass for any number of private, Southern boarding schools. If it weren’t for all the fences.
An escort walks me from the van to the lobby, where I see my dad standing on the other side of the metal detectors. My mom’s not with him, and I remind myself I don’t care because I’m mad at her anyway. Our eyes meet, and for a moment I have this impulse to run to him so he can hold me tight and tell me everything is going to be all right.
But nothing is right anymore.
Once I’m through the metal detectors, another woman calls me by name, and it sounds cold and robotic on her lips. She motions me into a smaller room, where I recognize my two duffel bags sitting on top of a long, stainless-steel table. They’re both unzipped, and a man wearing latex gloves is rifling through my stuff like it’s his and not mine.
“Have a seat, Ms. Truwell,” the woman says, and presents me with a chair. “Take out your braid. I need to check your head for lice.”
I sit down and unravel my braid, letting my long black hair fall past my shoulders in waves. The woman picks through it with pointy cylindrical sticks while I watch the man through the gaps in my hair.
“No electronics,” he says, pulling out my MP3 player and dropping it into a bin. Hearing it chink against the hard plastic hurts my ears. I have some of my own recordings on there of my friends playing music, songs that would be hard to replace.
“No sharps,” he says, and drops an unopened pack of disposable razors into the bin as well.
“How will I shave my legs?” I ask the woman.
Supervision? What kind of place is this?
“Nit-free,” the woman says. “Have a seat in the lobby. Someone will be down in a minute to show you to your room.”
I go out to the lobby, where my father’s already occupying one-half of the couch. I sit down on the opposite end, as far away as possible. I’m still not sure why he came. I thought we said our good-byes at juvie when he gave me the Sunny Meadows brochure and I threw it in the trash can. I waited until he left to pick it back out.
“Do you have anything you’d like to say to me?” he asks.
I shake my head. The best way to avoid an argument with my father is to not speak to him at all.
“Taylor,” he says again, softer this time, and I risk a glance over at him. He sits with his legs crossed in a trim gray suit with his long black hair pulled into a neat ponytail. Tiny wrinkles line his skin like riverbeds on a map, and there’s a tired look in his eyes that’s probably my fault too. When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me I looked just like my father, but on the inside we couldn’t be more different.
“I want to tell you something,” my father says, and I train my eyes straight ahead on the television screen. My father
always wants to tell me something, but he never wants to listen. “It’s about the Deer.”
Deer with a capital D. It’s my father’s clan. Our tribe is Seminole, the Unconquered People. He used to talk about the Seminole Wars fought between our ancestors and the U.S. government down in the River of Grass. When Andrew Jackson’s soldiers tried to hunt us down, rape our women, burn our camps, steal our cattle, and put us in cages, we prevailed. My father used to say, When we could not fight, we ran. When we could not run, we hid. But we never surrendered.
But he’s changed since then. Now he’s the one doing the caging.
“The Deer are beautiful creatures,” he says, “with lovely doe eyes and a light step. But they are easily frightened—a snapped twig, the chirp of a cricket, the wind in the trees. They do not stop to find where their fear comes from. They flee without thinking, always running, always hunted, never knowing why.”
“I am not Deer,” I say, because it’s the truth. Clan is passed down through your mother, and my own mother is nonnative.
“But you are part of me,” he says quietly, forcefully. “As you are part of your grandmother.”
I stare at my father’s coppery brown eyes, the same shade as my own. He’s bringing up my grandmother to remind me of who I am. Or who I was.
“That’s why I stole the car?” I say with obvious sarcasm, because he hates it when I disrespect my heritage. “Because I am like the Deer?”
“I don’t know why you did it. You won’t tell me.”
It doesn’t matter anymore why I stole that car and tried to run away from my mother’s house. Even if I could explain it, my father wouldn’t understand. He’d tell me I should have come to him. But our relationship is just one fight after another. And I never wanted to leave my mother, I just wanted her to stay sober.
“I have tried to help you in this manner,” he says, “but I’m invisible to you. My words mean nothing. And now you have broken the law. Your criminal record will follow you the rest of your life, yet you never stopped to ask yourself: Why?” He shakes his head. “I’ve done all I can. That responsibility falls on someone else now.”
He sits back, and my resentment gathers like thunderclouds. I study my hands, my fingers, long like my grandmother’s, but not nearly as nimble. How can he punish me for trying to leave when he’s the one who left us first?
I sense someone standing over us and glance up to see a college-age girl. “Hello, Mr. Truwell.” She nods at him and turns to me. “Hi, Taylor, I’m Kayla, your intern-in-residence.” She smiles brightly at me and I know I should smile back, but I don’t feel like pretending. I want to go home.
“What’s an intern-in-residence?” I ask her, trying not to sound too suspicious.
“It’s kind of like a big sister. Basically, I’m here to help you with your transition into Sunny Meadows and answer any questions you might have. I’ll be leading our group discussions, and I have an apartment down the hall from you, so I’ll always be available if you need something. Why don’t we all go upstairs and check out your room?”
I don’t want to check out my room or go any farther than the lobby. I want to make a mad dash for the fence and climb, but I force my feet to follow Kayla and my father into the stairwell and up three flights of stairs. We enter a long, fluorescent-lit hallway that makes my skin look sickly and green. The doors to the rooms are wide open, but the floor is deserted. Kayla tells us the girls are in group activities on the second floor and they’ll be back soon.
“Why are all the doors open?” I ask.
“We always keep them open. At Sunny Meadows, privacy is a privilege.”
My stomach turns. Privacy a privilege? Even with my mom, I’ve always kept my door shut. That was my right, not a privilege.
“Sunny Meadows is based on a merit system,” Kayla says, “where residents earn privileges through cooperation and care.”
“Yes, also music and TV, Internet and telephone time, makeup and nail polish, soda and vending-machine snacks, all those little extras.”
I think of my confiscated MP3 player. I can live without all the other stuff, but no music?
“What do I have to do to get privileges?”
“Just show us you’re a ready and willing participant in the program.”
She must be talking about my “rehabilitative program.” I read about it in the Sunny Meadows brochure. I’ve got the next six months to complete it. And my dad told me if I try to run away, it’ll be a breach of my probation and I’ll be hauled back to juvie.
But only if they find me.
Kayla stops in front of an open door and motions for me to go ahead of her, but my shoes are glued to the floor. I can’t go any farther. My father takes hold of my arm and guides me into the room.
The cinder-block walls are a custard color with one tiny window high up in the corner. It’s fixed with some sort of shatterproof glass that makes the outside look foggy. My duffel bags are already here, sitting beside the twin bed. There’s a desk, a chair, and a dresser with a mirror bolted to the wall. The polished metal is like the kind of mirror in
playground bathrooms—dim and creepy. The room smells like hand sanitizer, and it’s cold enough to make me shiver. Goose bumps form all along my arms, and I bite down hard on my lip to keep from crying.
“I’ll let you say your good-byes,” Kayla says, and backs out of the room.
I turn to my father, because he must realize by now what a mistake this is. I don’t belong in a place like Sunny Meadows. I’m not crazy.
“Dad, don’t leave me here.”
He says nothing, only strokes his chin and surveys the room.
“I won’t do anything like that again, I swear.”
“Taylor, it is too late. You brought this on yourself.”
“I could do my probation at your house if you want. I don’t have to live with Mom.”
“Give it time, Taylor. Give this program a try.”
“Dad, I don’t belong here.”
“This experience will be good for you. It will be a positive change.”
He’s not listening to me or he doesn’t care. He’s going to dump me in here and forget about me for the next six months, and by the time I get out, I might not even recognize myself. I’ll be no better off than when I got here, because my mother will still be a drunk and my father will still be cold and unforgiving. And I’ll still be . . . me.
“This is just like what you did to Mom,” I say, thinking about the times she came out of rehab, how every time she lost a little more of herself. “You’re locking me up just like her.”
He sighs and looks away. “No, Taylor, I’m doing this so you don’t turn into your mother—an impulsive, reckless, selfish woman.”
I glare at him. He has no right to say that about her. It’s his fault she’s the way she is. He’s the one who left her, who left us.
“Get out,” I say. When he doesn’t move, I say it again louder. “Get out.”
“Your anger is bigger than you are. You let it control you.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I say to him. I am a too-full jar about to spill over.
“You’re right, I don’t.” He stands there like a statue, unmoved. I want him to know what it feels like to be me. I want him to hear me for once in my life.
“I hate you.” Three words I’ve never uttered to anyone before, but I say them to him because if he’s going to leave me here in this strange place with its hospital smells and weird rules, then I want him to just go.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he says, every word clipped and measured, like he’s talking to a business partner and not his own daughter. “I’ll return soon for a visit.”
“Don’t bother. I won’t want to see you.”
He nods slowly. “Well, then. I suppose this is good-bye.” He nods once more and walks out of the room. I listen to his footsteps retreating down the hallway, the sound of him speaking with someone else, then the stairwell door opening and shutting, followed by a silence that echoes in my mind.
My chest tightens, and it feels like a fist inside my rib cage, squeezing my lungs so I can’t draw enough air. My breathing is erratic and shallow, like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. I’m nauseous and dizzy and I suddenly have to move. I have to get out of here.
I dash out to the hallway and head for the nearest exit. I knead my breastbone with my knuckles until my chest opens up and I’m able to take a few quick breaths. I punch down on the door’s metal bar and throw my weight against the door, but it’s stuck.
Not stuck. Locked. I’m trapped. Trapped.
Behind me a voice taunts, “You’re not getting out that way, girlfriend.”