I was an addict. I denied it for a long time, came up with excuses as to why what I was doing was ok, convinced myself that I wasn’t hurting anyone, so it didn’t really matter, all the typical justification that are shouted up from the depths of a downward spiral. When Mom noticed, she attributed it to Middle Child Syndrome and said it was a ploy for attention. Dad shrugged it off, figuring there were worse things. My sisters were too busy being perfect to comment.
Dad was right, in a way; it wasn’t like I was selling myself on street corners for meth or anything. There were definitely worse things than eating myself sick constantly. What had started as comfort eating to deal with a combination of poor self esteem and bullying slowly morphed into a need, a craving, an itch I couldn’t quite scratch.
I couldn’t look at food without feeling the urge to shove it in my mouth in a vain attempt to fill the emptiness that churned in my gut. And when I did give in, there was such a rush and the desire was quieted, even if only temporarily. I felt so guilty, knew I was doing wrong, and that just made me want to do it more. I was caught in a vicious circle of self-hatred perpetuated by the only thing that could make me feel any better: eating.
It got embarrassing fast. I tried to be discrete, eating normal portions in front of others, but then gorging myself behind closed doors until I felt like I would vomit. I couldn’t look in a mirror without wanting to cry. My face was becoming rounder, my clothes became harder to pull on, tighter, and my sisters started asking if I was “retaining water”. That was their idea of tact. Mom was even more blunt.
“You’re getting fat.” She said over breakfast one morning.
Kelly and Jasmine feigned interest in their cereal, but I could see their amused smirks. I swallowed back tears and shrugged. I’d never been thin, something Mom prioritized, and it was a sore point between us. It didn’t matter what she tried, what she made me do, I could just never get down to the same ideal size that she and my sisters were.
“It’s disgusting, it’s lazy, it’s sloppy! Is that what you want people thinking of you? Of your family? You’re almost seventeen for God’s sake!”
“No.” I mumbled.
“Then what are you going to do about it?”
“I’ve been trying, Mom…”
“Trying to embarrass me? Because you’ve been doing a good job of that. Cathy Mulrooney saw you at the club pool last week and do you know what she said? She said it looked like you were really enjoying taking the summer off and relaxing. She was so snide! I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die, Natalie!”
“If you’re so sorry, then put down the spoon and go for a run.”
I did run, all the way up to my room, where I locked myself in and dug out the stash of snacks I kept hidden in the back of my closet. I sat on my floor and tried to drown out Mom’s cold, angry words with the loud crunch of chips and candy, but it only made them louder. I caught sight of myself in the mirror hanging on the back of my door and I paused, my hand still in the bag of mini Snickers. Mom was right, I was a pig; gross, unloveable, ugly.
How lucky was I, then, when she told me a few days later that she had a solution?
“If you won’t fix it, I will.” She had come into my room while I cleaning and tossed a few pamphlets on my bed.
I picked one up and skimmed the front page, “Fat camp?” I asked, a sickening feeling bubbling up in the back of my throat.
“It’s one of the top rated programs in the country for…girls like you.”
“I’ll go to the gym! I’ll work out every day!”
“Yes, you will. At fat camp.”
When I tried to recruit Dad to my side later that night, he sat me down and let me cry against his shoulder. He knew about how strained my relationship was with my mom and he sympathized, but he was a pushover. He couldn’t stand up to her any more than I could.
“Maybe it will be good for you, sweetie.” He said gently, “You’ll get out of the house, meet new people, try new activities. It could be fun.”
“She hates me.” I said flatly. I had known it for a long time, but never said it out loud before.
“No she doesn’t! Your mom loves you, that’s why she cares so much about your weight. She wants you to be healthy.”
“She wants me to be skinny.”
“I’m going to bed, Dad. Goodnight.”
The morning I left for camp, Mom let me eat whatever I wanted for breakfast. She considered it a last meal of sorts. Despite the queasy knots in my stomach, I managed to scarf down French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a bowl full of strawberries. Mom forced a smile, although I could tell she was repulsed. She gave me a pat on the shoulder as I headed out to the car with Dad.
“Your sisters wanted to say bye, but they went for a jog and aren’t back yet. We’ll see you in six weeks; good luck.”
The drive upstate was long and quiet. Dad made a few attempts at conversation, but I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to get it over with.
The camp was beautiful, I admitted grudgingly to myself as we pulled up. A lake sparkled invitingly from behind a row of log cabins, neat paths wound off into the trees, and colorful flags and banners had been erected all around, welcoming the newest campers to their home for the next month and a half. As soon as we’d parked, a bright, overly bubbly woman practically pulled me from the car into a hug.
“Hello, I’m Stacey, a counselor! What’s your name?”
She scanned her clipboard and tapped it twice enthusiastically when she found my name, “Ah! Here you are! You’re in cabin three with Ashley. If you want to grab your stuff, I’ll take you on over.”
Dad gave me a tight hug and whispered, “If it’s horrible, call me. I’ll come get you.”
“Thanks.” I said, but I knew he wouldn’t.
I was assigned a bunk and given just enough time to unpack before they ushered us into a large dining hall. I was surrounded by other girls, all of whom looked as excited as I was about being there, and I felt the familiar twinge of nerves that set in whenever I was faced with a new situation. I wanted nothing more than to go home, curl up in my favorite pajamas, and eat. My stomach rumbled in agreement.
The counselors introduced themselves and did their best to be upbeat in the face of such a reluctant crowd, which didn’t have much effect. Apparently fat camp wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fun summer get away. After an awkward skit about making new friends, they served lunch; turkey burgers on whole wheat buns, a garden salad, steamed broccoli, and a popsicle for dessert. I was still ravenous when the meal was over, but they shuffled us out to go through a series of ice breaker activities.
By the time dinner rolled around, I’d become friendly with a couple of girls from my cabin and was starting to think that, maybe, camp wouldn’t be so horrible after all. We were given a disappointingly small portion of fish and rice to eat and, halfway through, I noticed that I was unusually sleepy. It had been a long, stressful day, so I didn’t think much of it and was happy when they gave us permission to return to our cabins. The other girls seemed to be similarly warn out and, sluggishly, we all went back to our bunks and collapsed into bed. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
“Huh?” I pried open one eye and had to blink the room into focus.
My head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, making it hard to piece thoughts together. My arms were stretched uncomfortably towards the headboard, but when I tried to move them, cold metal bit into my wrists.
I shifted, craning my neck to look up, and it took a long minute of staring to figure out what exactly I was seeing. A pair of handcuffs. Someone had cuffed me to the bed. I blinked dumbly, trying to process what this could mean in a mind still muddied with sleep. Around me, I heard similarly confused murmurs and the curious tugging of handcuffs.
“What’s going on?” Gloria, I managed to remember her name from the day before, asked from the bed beside me.
The murmurs became more frantic as reality set in. All six of us were chained by our wrists to our bed, unable to move beyond a pathetic squirm. One of us started to scream and then we all were. The door to our cabin burst open and Ashley, our counselor, rushed in.
“What’s the matter?” She asked, looking between us with wide eyes.
“Someone cuffed us!”
Instead of becoming more concerned at learning our plight, she relaxed, smiling.
“Oh, girls! It’s ok! No need to panic. I did that!”
There was a collective demand to know why.
“To start you on your journey to a healthier, happier you! You’ll see, girls, it’s all part of the plan!”
Somehow, that didn’t help. We shouted at her to unlock us, but she just shook her head, her hands on her hips, smiling all the while.
“Aw, listen to all of you! It’s only day one and you’re complaining already? Tsk tsk!”
It didn’t take long for my arms to ache. I tried to sit up to help take some of the pressure off of them, but no position was comfortable. I wondered if the other cabins were experiencing similar treatment. I hadn’t seen anyone walk by our window or heard any voices outside, so I assumed that was the case. Ashley walked up and down between the beds, humming, cheerful, while she watched us struggle in our restraints.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” Morgan said pleadingly.
Ashley paused beside her and crouched, “Ok, hon! Just go!”
“Ashley, please, it’s an emergency!”
“No one’s stopping you!”
I couldn’t see Morgan from where I was, but I could hear the desperation in her voice as she begged to be released. It went on for another few minutes before she couldn’t hold it any longer. She started to cry, humiliated, and Ashley shushed her good naturedly.
“It’s ok, hon!” She said, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed! You already live such a sickening lifestyle, why is this any different?” Her tone remained friendly, even sympathetic, “Pigs live in their own filth, Miss. Morgan!”
“What’s wrong with you?” Gloria asked angrily, “You can’t talk to her like that! You can’t do this!”
Ashley approached slowly and stood between our beds, smiling down at Gloria, “Oh, hon, I know that being reminded how yucky you are is hard, but we’re in this together! Think of me as your shepherd and you, my little flock of fat piggies! I’m just doing what you’re too weak to; making sure you stop shoveling food into your mouth long enough to lose some of those rolls!”
“This is kidnapping!”
“No need to be so dramatic, Miss. Gloria, your parents signed waivers! Now, I’m going to go grab some breakfast, but I’ll be back soon! You girls have fun, ok?”
She left us in a stunned silence. Our parents had signed us up for this, knowing what it would entail? I wanted to cry, to be surprised that my mother would do something like that, but all I felt was numb. Some of the girls tried screaming again, but no one came, and so they cried instead. Tears were replaced by anger and we all swore and made empty threats at the closed door. We tried to comfort one another as best we could, discussed possibilities for escape, but it was only half hearted and eventually we all went quiet, lost in bitter thought.
Hunger settled hollowly in my stomach, grumbling and groaning for relief. My mouth watered at the thought of everything I wanted and I shook my handcuffs irritably. In the back of my mind, I could hear my mother’s voice berating me for being so concerned with food at a time like this and I was immediately flush with guilt and shame. I shut my eyes, praying for any kind of relief.
Ashley didn’t come back for many hours, and by then all of us were lying in our own waste. I was so embarrassed that I could barely bring myself to look at the other girls, much less Ashley and her steady, sunny grin.
“Whew, it smells like a ‘sty in here! Who wants a shower?”
I perked up slightly and saw that Gloria had done the same. We’d talked briefly about overpowering Ashley and making a run for it the moment she freed us; maybe this would be our chance! That hope was washed away with the first spray from Ashley’s hose, which I hadn’t seen tucked discreetly behind her back. I gasped and sputtered under the wave of icy water that was spread liberally around the cabin, soaking all of us equally.
“There, don’t we feel better?” Ashley chirped when she was through, “Now, since we’re all nice and clean, let’s have something to eat!”
My stomach roared in response and she laughed, turning to me, “Well well, Miss. Natalie! Your mom warned us about that appetite and now I can see what she meant!” She clapped her hands together, “Ok, piggies, lunch time! Tara, bring it in!”
Another counselor came in wheeling a large garbage bin.
She beamed at us and, as she and Ashley each pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, said, “Hi, gals, I’m Tara! I’m part of the kitchen staff here! I just know you guys must be starved, I mean, have any of you had to go this long without eating before?”
Ashley shook her head and laughed like it was one if the greatest jokes she’d ever heard, “Have you seen these fat asses?”
Together, they moved the bin beside Gloria’s bed and Ashley reached into it, pulling out a handful of what looked like a combination of yesterday’s meals; half eaten burgers, bits of fish that I could already smell turning, wilted salad bits. Gloria shook her head when Ashley held it up to her lips, her mouth clamped shut.
“Oh, this little piggie isn’t hungry!” Tara pouted, “What do you think, Ash? Are any of them?”
“Let’s find out!”
One by one, we were offered the food from the garbage and one by one we refused. I was confident they wouldn’t let us starve, they couldn’t, and I would not eat garbage! They didn’t try to force us, just moved on when it was clear we wouldn’t take any. They followed it up with fresh water, which they ladled from a bucket. I slurped greedily until Tara took it away, tsking at me with amused reproach.
“Wow! What a great first day!” Ashley said once they’d finished, “You guys are already learning to listen to your bodies, eating only when you’re truly hungry! I’m so proud! Ok, I want you all to really think about how much you accomplished today! Me and Tara are going to take your food back to the kitchen, but don’t worry! We’ll bring it back tomorrow! Waste not, want not, right?”
They laughed and covered the bin back up before heading towards the cabin door. As she left, Ashley half turned one more time, “Congratulations, ladies, you’re all on your way to a healthier, happier you!”
The door shut loudly behind them, leaving us wet, hungry, and, for the first time, more than a little afraid.
After the first couple of days, keeping track of time became hard. We were left cuffed to our beds, sprayed down once a day, and offered the increasingly revolting garbage as our only food along with a ladle full of water. I managed to hold out for a little while, but I was weak and I was hungry and, finally, I took a bit of what only barely still passed as a turkey burger.
The smell of rotting meat made my already light head spin and the taste made me gag, lingering on the back of my tongue as further punishment. I choked it down with tears in my eyes and drank the water that followed desperately, like it might help wash the flavor and memory away.
“Aw, so good, hon!” Ashley said, “Isn’t it such a great feeling, eating only when you have to? Having that kind of self control is so important! Proud of you, Miss. Natalie!”
Gloria hadn’t fared so well. When she tried to swallow the fish, which smelled like a hot dumpster, she retched and then vomited frothy bile over the side of her bed onto the floor between us.
“Oh my goodness, look at what a messy little piggie you are, Miss. Gloria! Well, I guess you aren’t very hungry after all!”
Gloria groaned and turned her face away from Ashley. She had been so full of fight in the beginning, but the longer we were held there, the more it fizzled out. We no longer discussed escape plans or what we wanted to do to the camp staff once we were free. Talking required energy and we were sorely lacking. Just trying to keep my thoughts coherent was becoming harder.
My arms always ached, alternating between a cold numbness and a burning that made me wince whenever I shifted. I was sticky with old sweat and bodily waste and the damp mattress beneath me stank of both. Insects, attracted by the stench, buzzed all around and every part of me itched beneath the layer of filth. I wanted to shed my skin, crawl out of it and burn it, certain it would never be truly clean again.
We must have passed the first week or so like this; immobile and miserable. I began to think that maybe this would be the entirety of camp and almost resigned myself to a full month and a half of doing nothing but wasting away in my own excrement. You would be so proud, Mom, I thought during the night when I couldn’t sleep, I haven’t eaten in a while. I wanted to be angry, but feeling anything beyond the constant, gnawing hunger and hopelessness required too much effort.
“Rise and shine, my little piggies!” Ashley came sweeping into the cabin one morning, clapping her hands and shouting in a sing-song voice, “Who wants to go for a swim?”
When Ashley unlocked the cuffs and they fell away from my wrists, I thought I might have been dreaming. The blood rushing painfully back into my pale hands quickly dispelled that notion. I pushed myself to sit up, stiff and sore, and looked around at the other girls as they also rose. There was an air of hesitancy hanging over the room, as if we were waiting for the punchline to some joke only Ashley would think was funny.
But she just stood in the doorway in her favorite pose with her hands on her hips, smiling. Always smiling.
“You guys sure have a funny way of showing your excitement! Come on, my little piggies, let’s go!” When no one moved from their bunks, she sighed and rolled her eyes theatrically, “You guys don’t wanna go? I know having to get off your huge asses is a scary thing! I know exerting yourself more than unwrapping a candy bar is hard! But that’s why you’re here; to learn that being so lazy is unacceptable! Last chance, piggies, let’s go!”
Underwhelmed by our continued reluctance, she reached down outside the door and picked something up; a long steel rod with a rubber grip handle. On the opposite end, which she displayed clearly for us to see, were two protruding metal pins.
“Know what this is, girls?” She meandered between the beds, swinging the rod around casually, “No? None of you? Silly piggies, I guess it’s better to show than tell!”
She stopped at the foot of Inez’s bed and the girl cowered against her headboard. Inez was the largest of us, soft spoken and gentle. I hadn’t heard her speak much since the first day we’d arrived, only cry, but now she was babbling about how she’d go, she’d love to swim, she was sorry.
Ashley relaxed, nodded with a soothing smile, and then pressed the rod against the center of Inez’s chest. There was a sharp snap of electricity and Inez yelped and fell back, her hands clutching at her chest.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Miss. Inez! It’s just a low amp, low voltage cattle, well, piggie, prod! Don’t you feel more motivated?”
Inez sniffled and nodded once.
“Good! Then let’s get that huge tub of lard body of yours out the door and down to the lake! Come on, girls!”
Inez was the first to get unsteadily to her feet and then the rest of us followed suit. I gripped my headboard and pulled myself up, but found my legs shaky, bordering on unreliable. Dizziness threatened to knock me back down, but I was too afraid of Ashley and her “piggie” prod to let that happen. With a great deal of concentration, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other and fell in line with the others.
We were ushered, stumbling and blinking against the harsh sunlight, down towards the lake. Could I run for it? I wondered, looking over to the trees. They seemed so impossibly far and I felt so lethargic. Just walking was proving somewhat of a challenge; I couldn’t even imagine how I’d manage to do anything more. Ashley practically skipped along beside us, singing some camp song about having fun and making friends.
At the lake’s edge, we were met by two other counselors, Shauna and Megan, who waved enthusiastically and motioned for us to follow them down a long dock and line up in front of them. Ashley poked us along threateningly with her prod if she thought we were going too slow, but mercilessly left it off.
“Hi, ladies!” Shauna beamed at us, “I am just so excited for you guys to be here! Oh my God, we’ve got such a fun activity planned for you!”
“Yes we do!” Megan jumped in, “It’s called Whale Watching! You wanna hear how to play?”
When we didn’t answer, Ashley shoved the prod under Morgan’s arm and pressed the trigger.
Morgan collapsed against me with a cry and we both almost fell backwards into the water. Shauna waited until we had regained our balance before continuing.
“Ok, so here’s how it works! You guys, the whales, are going to get in the water and tread, tread, tread! We’re the watchers! We’re going to sit up here on the dock and, you guessed it, watch!”
“But here’s the fun part!” Megan said, “The first person that gets tired and needs to be pulled out gets five pokes from Ashley’s piggie prod! Every person after will get one less until there’s only one of you left in the water! That person won’t get the prod; they’ll get a nice bowl of fresh salad instead! Doesn’t that sound fun?”
The three counselors cheered enthusiastically and directed us to turn and face the water. I remembered thinking how pretty it had been when we first pulled up and how I had been looking forward to going swimming. Now, I was half convinced I was going to drown in it. We were shoved in with shouts of encouragement trailing behind us.
The water was cold and deep and sent a shock through my system. Ashley and the others sat on the edge of the dock, their legs dangling over the side. Occasionally they’d kick up water at us, laughing all the while.
“Don’t slow down, Diana! You won’t get rid of your blubber by just floating there!”
“You’re a whale, not a log, keep kicking!”
“Aw, look at my little piggies! Paddle, paddle, paddle! I’m so proud of you!”
It didn’t take long for my lungs to start burning from exertion. My arms and legs felt heavy even submerged and it took every ounce of strength to keep them moving. The fatigue I’d felt before was becoming thicker, a blanket of weariness that threatened to drag me under. Beside me, Gloria’s treading started to turn more into flailing and I saw her head bob dangerously low. She went under once, pulled herself back up, but then was down again.
She was gasping for breath, coughing, and her splashing was becoming panicked. I heard her shout for help before going under again. I wanted to go to her, but the warning that a drowning person will pull you under with them echoed loudly in my ears.
“Help her!” Diana shrieked, which had a ripple effect and we all started screaming for them to do something.
After a minute of listening to us call for help, Shauna stood up and lazily sauntered to the pole where the rescue ring was hanging and unhooked it.
“You sure you want this, Gloria? If you give up now, that’s five pokes!”
“Someone’s gotta be first!” Ashley said, pointing the prod down at Gloria, “Throw her the ring!”
The ring landed with a flat splash beside Gloria. She grabbed at it and pulled it close, clinging to it with desperate fear. The whole time the counselors hauled her in by the ring’s rope, she stared back at us, pale and shivering.
After she’d been pulled to shore, Ashley toweled her off and led her down the dock again so that she was standing in front of us.
“Wasn’t that pathetic, piggies? Barely thirty minutes and already Gloria’s let herself give up! I bet if the prize had been a double cheeseburger she would have lasted longer!”
While the counselors laughed, Gloria’s lip trembled. I recognized the shame, born so nakedly on her face, and I could feel her hurt. While we continued to tread water before them, they berated her and called her names, each one punctuated by the prod. When they were finished, Gloria sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands.
“We aren’t doing this because we want to hurt you!” Ashley said, patting Gloria on the back, “We’re giving you tough love so that you can be your happiest, healthiest self! Underneath all the rolls and stretch marks, there are beautiful girls just waiting to be set free!”
“We were all like you once!” Megan added sympathetically, “We understand that changing isn’t easy! Especially when you’ve allowed yourself to become such an ugly, unhealthy cow! But we’re going to help you, just like we were helped!”
They let Gloria move to the end of the dock, where she could sit alone and cry, while they resumed “whale watching”.
Inez was pulled out next, and then Diana, and Morgan. Each time, they were giving the same treatment as Gloria and each time, the counselors seemed to delight in it more. The prods were less in number, but longer in duration, and when Morgan’s punishment was complete, I was sure I could smell singed flesh.
With only two of us left, Ashley crouched and clapped, “I’m so proud of you, Miss. Natalie! You too, Miss. Gracie! You sure are showing these other ham beasts how it’s done!”
Grace and I exchanged worried glances. The only thing that had kept me going was the threat of that prod, but even that was starting to not be enough. The water felt thick, harder to push through, and my arms especially screamed at me to stop. I could feel the lake trying to suck me down and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t stop it.
The first time my head went under, I managed to resurface quickly, but when I went down again, it was more difficult to find my way back up. I clawed at the water, grabbing at it like I would find something to take hold of. Grace had put some distance between us when she noticed I was starting to struggle, but I could hear her calling to me, telling me to keep going. But I couldn’t.
Just as I felt the very last ounce of strength slipping away, the ring landed in front of me. I didn’t want to grab it, I didn’t want to go back to shore, to Ashley and her piggie prod, but what choice did I have? I slung an exhausted arm around the ring and let them drag me in.
They were chatty while they dried me off, telling me they were amazed that someone so fat could last so long out on the water.
“Must be hippo instead of pig!” Shauna said and they all laughed.
Just as the others had been, I was brought down the dock and made to stand in front of Grace, who was still managing to stay afloat although I could tell it was almost killing her to do so.
“Miss. Natalie, you did so good! One hour and twenty four minutes, I can’t believe it! Of course, to a normal person, that’s not so long, but for someone like you, wow!” Ashley gushed from over my shoulder, “But, unfortunately, you were only in second place! You know what that means!”
I didn’t even have time to shudder. She just stuck the prod against my back and pressed down on the trigger. Every muscle in my body tightened at once and I couldn’t move. I was trapped in my own body, locked into place by Ashley and her prod, unable to speak or even really think. She held me there until it started to burn, when she yanked it away and let me sag to the dock.
Grace was helped ashore and dried off and they made a big show of presenting her with a bowl of fresh salad, which had been brought down by Tara. The sight of the round, red cherry tomatoes and crisp lettuce was enough to have my mouth watering. I had never wanted anything so much as I wanted that salad. The others crowded closer, our eyes transfixed and longing. Grace hugged the bowl against her stomach and raised the fork to her mouth.
She got one bite before Ashley knocked it from her hands and kicked it into the lake.
“I want you to savor that bite, Grace! Remember how nice and cool it was! Vegetables should be your favorite food! When you’re hungry tonight, think about that salad, how good it was, how much you wanted to finish it! Let yourself crave it! Soon, you won’t ever find yourself wanting greasy chips or fatty sweets anymore; you’ll want that salad! Great job, ladies, now let’s get you back to your bunks for some rest!”
Ashley, Shauna, and Megan herded us back to the cabin, pushing us to go quickly despite how tired we were. If I had thought it hard to run away earlier, it had now become impossible. Every nerve still tingled uncomfortably from the prod, my arms drooped uselessly, my legs barely wanted to carry me. My head buzzed with hunger and thirst and the need for good, solid sleep. None of us argued as we were returned to our beds, the mattresses of which had been flipped over, and handcuffed back into place. We were too exhausted.
Ashley smiled from the door, her hand on the light switch.
“Get your rest, my little piggies! Tomorrow, we learn to let go of dead weight!”
After such ominous parting words, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Let go of dead weight? I pictured dull, rusty knives and Ashley’s sugary sweet voice telling us we only had minutes to cut off as much fat as we could before she sicced a pack of hungry dogs on us to get the rest. Even with images of blood and screaming filling my head, however, the threat of whatever tomorrow might bring wasn’t enough to overcome the sheer exhaustion that enveloped me.
I drifted in and out for hours, sometimes waking from the pitiful whine of my stomach, sometimes from the depths of a watery nightmare, sometimes from the pain. Everything hurt; I felt strained, stretched thin, sore. My head throbbed, leaving me clouded and dizzy, and I wondered over and over again how much more I could take.
In a half-dream state, my thoughts wandered to my mother. Had she really known what they were going to do to us? Had she willingly signed away my safety and well being in the hopes I’d lose weight? Surely no mother would prefer her daughter starving, possibly dying, instead of being fat. Then again, this was the same woman who would only admit I was her child if asked directly; otherwise I was just Natalie the afterthought, only introduced out of necessity. I almost wanted to laugh, or maybe I wanted to cry, I wasn’t sure.
Were the other girls from similar homes? We hadn’t really had a chance to talk much about our lives outside of camp, much less our relationships with our families, but no sane parent would have sent their daughter here. While I had known there had to be other mothers like mine out there, I’d thought they were few and far between. The number of girls I’d seen at camp that first night, it must have been 50 or 60, made me rethink that.
I watched the room go from black to gray and then light up with cracks of sunlight that snuck around the drawn curtains and under the door. Grace started to cry when she woke to and saw morning had come already. We knew what it meant and it terrified us.
As if drawn by the tears, the cabin door was flung open and Ashley strode in, all pep and good cheer.
“Goooood morning, little piggies!” She sang, stretching her arms over her head and inhaling deeply, “You gals sure know how to stink up a place, don’t you? But that’s ok! That is okay! We will deal with that later! For now, though, we have other things planned!”
She rubbed her hands together and looked around, excitement shining in her eyes. There was a collective nervous shifting of bed springs and cuffs as she walked down the row of beds, inspecting us, visually dissecting us.
“You little piggies hungry?” She asked once she’d looked each of us over.
We lay in tense silence, unwilling to answer. After the garbage and the trick with the salad, we didn’t expect anything from her. At least, not anything good.
“I asked you a question, ladies!” She chirped, her hands on her hips, “I expect an answer! One more time, who’s hungry?”
The noncommittal groaning and mumbling she received seemed to have been good enough, because she waved out the cabin door and Tara came in carrying a covered tray.
“Miss Tara whipped up something extra special this morning to help get you prepped and ready for your activity today! Who wants first dibs?” When no one answered, she turned to Inez, “You’re the fattest little piggie in here, I bet you’re just dying to dive in, huh? Ok, ok, come on, Tara, let’s get her some breakfast! But be careful, don’t want her gnawing off your hand!”
They tittered together and set the tray on the bed beside Inez. I don’t think any of us breathed while we waited to see what fresh torture they’d concocted for us. The lid was removed and Inez’s eyes went wide.
Sitting in the very center of the tray, still steaming, was a half full bowl of plain oatmeal.
Ashley plucked up the spoon that Tara had brought and filled it full of the oatmeal.
“What do you think, Miss Inez, want some yummy food?” Ashley asked, the spoon held tantalizingly close to Inez’s lips.
Inez nodded once, her chin quivering. Ravenous hunger burned feverishly bright in her eyes, which never left the spoon. Ashley laughed, delighted, and fed Inez the bite of oatmeal. Tears streamed openly down Inez’s round cheeks and she held it in her mouth, savoring the first real food she’d had in over a week. The rest of us had all unconsciously leaned forward, licking and chewing our lips, trying to at least get a whiff of the oatmeal over the rank cabin air.
“Ok, little piggie, before you get too carried away, you need to make a choice!”
There it was. The catch. I had known it was too good to be true, but it still raked like ice down my spine. We all tensed, waiting for Ashley’s terms.
“Now, you can have this whole bowl all to yourself! Every. Last. Bite. Or! You can take one more spoonful and pass it down to the next girl!”
The room went silent. Inez’s mouth had fallen open and she looked to us. There was a war going on inside of her and we all silently begged that she let the right side win and pass the bowl along. Our empty stomachs rumbled, voicing our hunger for us when we dared not.
“Pass.” She said quietly and hung her head.
“Oh my goodness, how generous is she, girls? I mean, wow! That is some impressive self control there! I am just, wow, so proud!” Ashley said and Tara nodded enthusiastically along in agreement.
They fed Inez one more bite and moved to Diana, who had thin lines of drool dribbling down her chin at the sight of the oatmeal. She opened wide and was given her first bite and then the same choice: keep it all or pass.
Diana didn’t hesitate.
“More!” She pleaded, “Give me more!”
“Are you sure?” Ashley asked, “You don’t want to share with the other little piggies?”
I wasn’t certain Diana had even heard her. She struggled against her restraints, trying to get her hands on that spoon. We shouted at her, no words, just unintelligible, starved anger. She shook her head like it would help block us out and kept shouting, louder and louder, for more.
With every spoonful she got, my resentment deepened. It was only plain oatmeal, something I’d never even liked, but watching that bowl become emptier and emptier was like watching a lifeline fade away. I hated Diana in that moment, but there was also some small part of me, a tiny whisper I barely acknowledged, that was grateful. Because of her, I’d never have to find out if I would have been strong enough to share.
“Well, Miss Diana,” Ashley said after the oatmeal was finished, “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. Inez, so fat she’s barely human shaped anymore, was able to share, but you were a greedy little piggie, weren’t you?”
Diana turned away, her eyes downcast.
“It’s ok, though, this was very helpful! Now that all the other little piggies have seen how selfish and disgusting you are, they know what they also look like every time they gorge themselves! It’s gross, huh, girls?”
Ashley motioned for Tara to clear away the tray and, once it was gone, she stood in the center of the room.
“Well, now that that’s done, on to today’s activity!”
As she’d done the day before, she retrieved her piggie prod and uncuffed us so that we could line up and leave the cabin. Diana made sure to stay at the back of the line by Ashley to avoid our reproachful glares, but more than once I looked over my shoulder so that she was forced to see my anger. Ashley told me that no one liked a stink face.
Again, I considered running, but even if I tried, how far would I get? Hungry, tired, in pain from over-exertion, unable to think straight for more than short bursts, and, as Ashley kept pointing out, extremely out of shape. There was no escape. The others must have realized the same thing because we trudged, silent and single file, towards the treeline, where I could see Shauna and another counselor waiting.
“Ladies,” Ashley said after we’d stopped in front of them, “I’d like you to meet one of our activity coordinators, Carolyn! She helps think up a lot of the fun things we get to do! Say hi!”
There was a soft murmur of grudging hellos and Carolyn waved with both hands, grinning.
“So, Caro, you want to tell my little piggies what we’ll be doing today?”
“I would love to! But first, how’d breakfast go?”
“Well, not so great, actually. Miss Inez, bless her heart, was so quick to share! But theeeen, Miss Diana gobbled all the rest up and left nothing for anyone else!”
“That’s not so great at all!” Carolyn agreed, “But that’s ok! Mistakes are made and that’s how we learn! But, only if there are consequences.”
We all looked over at Diana.
“I-I didn’t do anything wrong!” She said desperately, “You’re starving us! I couldn’t help myself, I was so hungry!”
She broke down into heaving sobs that shook her whole body.
“Aw, hon, shh, shh!” Ashley put an arm around Diana’s shoulders and gave a squeeze, “It’s ok, you’re weak, we know! We’re working on fixing that!”
“We certainly are!” Carolyn said, “And today’s activity was planned with that very goal in mind! Today, our focus is going to be on learning to let go of dead weight! Doesn’t that sound fun? Diana, why don’t you come here and we will get you kitted out so the others can see what we’re going to be doing!”
Diana shook her head and tried to back up, but a poke from the piggie prod had her jumping forward. Carolyn and Shauna grabbed her arms and hauled her front and center.
“Now, girls, today we are going to take a rope,” Carolyn held up a length of course rope and tied it around Diana’s waist, “and tie it around each of you, like so! We are then going to knot the free end to the next girl in line! So, um, you, what’s your name?”
“This is Natalie!” Ashley answered for me.
“Ok, Natalie, come here, that’s it!”
She wrapped the rope around me like a belt and tightened it uncomfortably before tying me to Diana. Down the line she went, until we were all strung together.
“Ok, now that we’re in our little ‘chain gang’, we’re going to accessorize! Shauna?”
Shauna knelt and picked up a box that I hadn’t noticed sitting behind her. She opened the top and held it out so we could see its contents; little black boxes with straps.
“Ankle bracelets!” She said, giving the box a little shake.
“Tracking ankle bracelets!” Carolyn corrected her, grabbing one to affix it to Diana’s ankle, “You’re each going to wear one so we can keep an eye on you! They’re waterproof and if you try and remove them, they’ll tattle on you and we’ll know!”
“Don’t need any sneaky piggies in my flock!” Ashley said as Carolyn strapped a bracelet to each of us.
“And now, one more thing just for Diana!” Carolyn rooted around in the box and came up with a pair of wrist weights, “These are each ten pounds; they represent the weight you’re no doubt going to gain if you keep eating like the little pig you are! Aren’t those heavy? Ugh, fat is such a drag, huh?”
Diana let her weighted arms fall to her sides with a whimper.
“So, who wants to find out what all of this is for?”
“I do, I do!” Ashley cheered.
“Great! It’s very simple! All you guys have to do…” She paused for dramatic effect, “is run! Not so easy when you’re all tied together, huh? Someone’s bound to get tired, slow everyone else down, right? Not to worry, just let that dead weight go! You can untie the knot and you’ll be free to keep moving! If you don’t want to leave the dead weight, we’re more than happy to give you a little encouragement!”
“And the girl who’s left behind will be picked up by a counselor! There’s a few spread out in the woods, so don’t worry! She won’t be alone for long.” Shauna said.
“The last one still running will get a nice bath after and another bowl of oatmeal! Doesn’t that sound great?” Carolyn folded her arms over her chest, clearly pleased, “Just make sure you stick to the trails; piggies who wander will be punished! Ok, girls, ready? Set? Run!”
None of us could run. Even if we had the energy, being tied together made it awkward and uncomfortable, so we were forced to shuffle off in a waddling power walk into the woods.
It wasn’t long before the huffing and puffing started. Even if we’d wanted to try and plan an escape, we wouldn’t have been able to speak through our wheezing. The muscles in my legs cramped and seized, forcing me to slow, but I couldn’t stop. I had to ignore the sound of blood rushing in my ears, ignore the weight of fatigue that plagued my every step, ignore the pounding of my head. I could feel the sluggishness of the girls around me pulling at my rope, but I had to keep moving.
When Diana started to lag, I knew it was the beginning of the end.
“Don’t leave me.” She kept whispering breathlessly, but the rope was taut and she could barely lift her feet anymore. The additional weight had taken its toll.
Morgan made the final decision to untie her, but none of us tried to stop her. I thought I’d feel some kind of vengeful glee at leaving Diana behind, but seeing her crumpled in the middle of the path, calling weakly after us, I only felt pity. We kept marching forward, even after her shrieks started and we were sure the counselors had found her.
Grace fell next, facedown and sobbing, and when we tried to get her back on her feet, a counselor appeared on the edge of the path, a familiar rod in hand. She waved it warningly at us and we were forced to leave Grace behind.
I wanted to be strong. I wanted to prove Ashley wrong, I wanted to walk until my feet fell off just to show her that I could withstand whatever she threw at me. But what I wanted and what I was actually capable of were two very different things. I stumbled and grabbed at Inez, trying to keep myself upright, but she shook me off, unable to bear my weight along with her own.
“Please, help.” I begged pathetically.
Instead, Inez undid my knot, freeing the remaining three from me. She looked at me, her expression haunted, and said, “I’m sorry.”
I watched their backs as they continued on without me.
“I’m not stopping,” I wheezed, “I’m not stopping.”
I made it a few, small steps before I was prodded in the back and sent staggering to the ground.
“No, no, little piggy!” It was Carolyn, “You were deemed dead weight and dead weight doesn’t get to keep going! Ashley, Shauna, we got another one down!”
Together, they stripped me down to my underwear, leaving the ankle bracelet attached, and dragged me to a thick tree. I was tied tightly to the trunk so that its bark bit painfully into my bare flesh every time I tried to move. Once I was secure, they each took a turn using the piggie prod on me.
“Since dead weight gets left behind, you get to sleep in the woods tonight!” Ashley crouched in front of me, “I want you to really think about that lazy life of luxury you’ve been living while you’re out here! All that comfort, how easy you’ve had it, it’s made you into the little piggie you are today! You need to learn to toughen up and this exercise will help you do just that!”
She gave me what I might have thought of as an affectionate tweak under my chin if it had come from someone else and stood up.
“Ok, ladies, let’s go see if we’ve got any more dead weight to deal with!”
They linked arms and walked away, leaving me alone, mostly nude and tied to a tree in the middle of the woods.
I struggled feebly, uselessly, against the ropes, but all it did was make the tree’s bark dig deeper into my naked back. Every time I shifted, I was certain that I could feel my skin thinning, threatening to split. It didn’t take long for the insects to find me and feast on my exposed flesh, leaving a trail of angry red welts in their wake. Sometimes, it felt like they were burrowing into my skin, crawling beneath it, eating me from the inside out. Thirst burned in my throat, hunger echoed in my empty stomach, and I itched and I ached and I could find no relief.
Somewhere nearby, up the trail and out of sight, I could hear one of the girls, maybe Gloria, screaming. She was begging for help, for someone to find her, and I almost shouted for her to shut up. No one was coming, I’d already realized that, why hadn’t she? I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the noise, and leaned my head back against the tree.
The hours passed slowly. The only way I could be sure time was even moving at all was by the lengthening of the shadows and the eventual darkness that crept into the woods. Usually, I would have been terrified at the idea of being alone outside after nightfall and my imagination would have run wild, turning every bush into some kind of monster just waiting to pounce. But now there was no room for any more fear, no energy to conjure up make-believe beasts. I couldn’t even bring myself to cry.
There was no sleep to be had, only a foggy daze, and after Gloria, or whoever it had been, went quiet and silence had blanketed the woods, voices started to ring in my ears; soft at first, but growing louder, angrier. My mother, Ashley, Tara, Carolyn.
“Fat, lazy, weak!”
The chorus went on and on, bouncing through my mind until it was all I heard. I couldn’t fight them off, couldn’t make them stop. ‘Round and ’round they went until I was sick and dizzy with grief, guilt, and self-loathing. I was all of those things; I was, I was, I was! If I had been stronger, better, this wouldn’t have happened!
I didn’t realize I’d started hitting the back of my head against the tree until the voices shattered, broken by the heavy crack of my skull against wood. I forced myself to stop, wrenching my head from side to side and breathing hard.
“I’m losing it.” I whispered, and I laughed softly, bitterly, through the few tears that still managed to slip out.
I had thought earlier that I could get through it, that I could prove them all wrong and overcome anything. I knew now how wrong I had been. How many days had it been since I’d eaten real food? How long since I’d really slept or showered or done anything even remotely human? It couldn’t have been much longer than a week, a week and a half, but it weighed on me like an eternity.
To keep the voices at bay, I tried to think of a song, any song, but I couldn’t make sense of any of the jumbled lyrics that tried to surface. I started to hum tunelessly instead, just a steady stream of noise to fill up the spaces in my head.
I looked around sharply, only half sure I’d actually heard my name.
There it was again, coming from somewhere just opposite me. I leaned as far forward as the rope allowed, which wasn’t much, and narrowed my eyes, trying to see through the darkness. A shadow separated from the tree, short and round, and skittered over to me.
“It’s me!” Morgan hissed as she dropped to her knees beside me, “I got away from Ashley on our way back to camp and came back for you. I’ll untie you and then we can get out of here!”
I stared at her dumbly.
“Just-just stay quiet. I know they’re looking for me.” She was working hard on the knot, I could feel her tugging it, and then the rope started to loosen.
She came back around, one loose end in her hands, “Come on,” she said anxiously, “we have to go!”
I started to push myself up on legs that had long since fallen asleep, but there was something in the way that she kept looking over her shoulder that made me pause. Somewhere in my prey brain, alarm bells were going off. I froze, a mouse who had caught wind of a cat.
“Come on!” Morgan urged again.
I wanted to believe her, but something in me, some primal, unthinking part that worked only off of instinct, kept me in place. My mind was a mudslide, a mess of half formed ideas and questions that I couldn’t begin to put into words. I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t.
“Natalie!” She was almost crying, desperate, and still looking over her shoulder.
“No.” Was all I managed to say.
She tried pulling on my arms, but I went limp and let myself sink back against the tree. She cursed at me and pulled again, but it was no use. I wasn’t going to budge.
“Why? Just come on!”
I shook my head.
When it became clear to her that I wasn’t moving, she screamed at me, telling me that this was my only chance and I was stupid to just sit there. Insults, cursing, and through it all, I remained motionless, my half lidded gaze on the tree line just behind her. The tirade was allowed to go on for another minute or so before I heard a telling zap and Morgan was forced to take a knee.
“What a good, obedient little piggie!” Ashley crooned, her piggie poker slung easily over one shoulder, “I thought for sure you’d be off running, or, you know, waddling, but here you are! I am just so gosh darn proud! You’ve learned some serious self-control!”
Morgan’s shoulders shook with sobs and Ashley pat her on the head, “Miss Morgan here was the winner of today’s activity! But the little piggie still hasn’t had her oatmeal! We had a surprise part two that she had to complete first and, well, surprise! Wasn’t she great?”
It took me a long minute to make sense of her words. A part two? Tricking us into trying to leave? I gaped blankly at them, still trying to fit all the pieces together.
Ashley noticed my struggle and said kindly, “Don’t you worry your fat little head about it, Miss Natalie! We’ll explain everything back at camp. Now come on, get up, we’ve got a bit of a walk back.”
I stumbled down the path alongside Morgan, the threat of Ashley’s prod looming constantly from behind. I didn’t feel any sense of betrayal, no anger, no upset with Morgan. I was too numb to anything other than exhaustion. We were guided back to the cabin, where all the other girls were already gathered, and re-cuffed to our beds. I had never thought I’d actually feel any measure of joy at being returned to that stinking, stained bunk, but after so many hours spent against that tree, I welcomed it.
Ashley brought me a ladle full of water, which I sucked down greedily, and gave my cheek a little pinch, “Most of you were just such well behaved little piggies!” She said, waving the now empty ladle across to room, “Only one of you,” Her eyes flicked to Grace, who shrank further against her pillow, “was very, very naughty.”
She tossed the ladle to the floor and crossed over to Grace.
“I’m sorry!” Grace kept repeating, but Ashley acted like she didn’t hear.
“Do you know what will hold you back? Make it impossible for you to be a healthier, happier you?” Ashley asked, “Running away from your problems! You will never learn how to cope without resorting to food if you just keep trying to run away! It’s the easy thing to do, and we all know that you fat asses are all about taking the easy way out! But not here, my little piggies, I won’t let you!”
“Today’s activity was about learning to let go of your dead weight and then taking responsibility for your weakness! Miss Morgan did so good, she ran and ran while the rest of you let your fat drag you down! After you had some time to think about aaaall the bad decisions you’ve made that brought you here, we asked Miss Morgan to go back out there and offer you an easy out, the kind that you’ve always taken!”
Morgan couldn’t meet any of the glances that were shot her way. Shame clouded her expression, made it almost impossible to face us.
“While most of you tried to keep the lessons you’ve learned close to your overworked little hearts, Miss Gracie here was naughty! Can you believe she tried to run away, after all the help we’ve given her? Given all of you? I must say, it really disappointed me. But I can forgive you, my little piggie! I can and I will, because we all make mistakes!”
Grace dared to look hopeful. She even tried to smile in return when Ashley gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“But remember,” Ashley said sweetly, “in order to earn that forgiveness, you must face the consequences.”
Grace’s smile faded into confusion and then into a terrified, pleading frown. She tugged at her restraints, begging Ashley to give her a second chance, to let her prove that she was good, just like the rest of us.
Ashley crouched beside her and smoothed Grace’s hair away from her face, shushing her gently, “Your whole life has been spent with people going easy on you; that’s why you look like you’re made of dough! It’s time for some tough love, sweetie! Tara! Come on in!”
The cabin door swung open and Tara sauntered in, one of the large metal serving trays in hand. It’s cover was in place, hiding its contents. She brought it over to Ashley and, with a dramatic flourish removed the lid.
“Great! Morgan’s bowl of oatmeal is here! Leave the tray with me and bring that on over to our little winner!”
Tara scooped the bowl of oatmeal up and left the tray in Ashley’s hands to go and spoon feed Morgan, who at least tried to act hesitant about accepting. She ate it while we all watched, envious with stomachs growling. With that taken care of, Ashley’s attention turned fully to Grace, and when Grace started to scream “No, no!”, we tore our eyes from Morgan and followed suit.
Ashley held the tray aloft, panning it slowly around the room so that we could all see the hammer lying upon it. My stomach turned sour and I felt the blood drain from my face.
“Do you know what happens to naughty piggies who try to escape?” Ashley asked conversationally, “They have to be hobbled.”
The hammer was in her hand. Grace was shrieking, begging her not to. The rest of us raised our voices as well, all of us screaming and shouting and crying. But it wasn’t enough to cover the meaty thwak of metal meeting flesh. Or the crunch of bone that followed. When Grace tried to kick Ashley with her free foot, Tara dropped the bowl of oatmeal, spilling it across Morgan, and rushed to hold her down.
Four times Ashley swung the hammer, and each time, Grace became more shrill. Pain contorted her features, bulged her eyes, twisted her hands in their cuffs. I wanted to vomit, but there was nothing in my stomach to purge.
“You see, my little piggies?” Ashley asked, her face flush, “This is what happens when you’re naughty! You must be punished! It is the only way you’ll learn! You’ve been coddled your whole lives, allowed to become huge and unhealthy and ugly! The first chance you get, you run right back to what’s easy, which just starts the cycle all over! You’re never going to improve if this is how you keep living your life!”
Grace was rolling her head back and forth in pain, moaning gutturally. Fat beads of sweat popped up on her forehead and dripped down her face, mingling with her tears. Ashley tweaked her cheek and stood up.
“Ok, girls, I feel like we’ve made some real progress, but now it’s time to rest! So lights out, eyes shut, and try to dream of something other than food!”
On their way to the door, I overheard Tara say, “That always reminds me of the Stephen King book, the one with the author and the crazy lady!”
Ashley giggled, “Where do you think Carolyn got the idea?”
There was no comforting Grace that night, although we tried what little we could. We talked to her in soothing tones, tried to distract her with stories, disjointed and poorly thought out as they were, told her what we’d like to do to Ashley on her behalf. But Grace just kept groaning through it all, absorbed so completely in her pain that I don’t think she knew we were even talking.
We gave up after awhile, one by one going quiet, until the cabin was filled only by the sound of Grace’s misery. Her low, animalistic wails lasted through the night and into morning, when Ashley returned to hose us down. She frowned down at Grace from the foot of her bed and gave her an extra spray in the face.
“No need to be such a drama queen, Miss Gracie!” She chastised her lightly, “You deserved this!”
After she’d finished dousing us with the icy water, she coiled up the hose and stood in the door with a sparkling smile, “You girls are going to be so thrilled for our next activity! We have to wait for it to rain, but that should happen any day now! As soon as it does, we are back outside and learning how to really appreciate the hard work that goes into putting food on the table! Until then, enjoy a few days with your feet up! I know that’s what my little piggies like best!”
She giggled, wiggled her fingers at us, and let the door slam shut behind her.
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.