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A ropes course was a shitty place for self-discovery. Seventeen-year-old Sadie Su understood she was meant to think otherwise, but (1) she had no interest in introspection and (2) even if she did, what the hell was the point? This loamy godforsaken spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains was a playground for perceived risk only. Nothing here was real. Nothing was transformative.
True change required true danger.
Sadie shifted her legs and tugged to loosen the straps on the safety harness she wore. Blood was being constricted from places she thought blood needed to go.
When she felt more comfortable and no one was looking, Sadie turned away from the group. She sidled a little ways down the hillside, black sheep leaving the flock, before edging out of sight of the ropes course, the towering redwood trees, and the other girls from the wilderness camp. They were teenagers like her, the girls, all supposedly "troubled." Only unlike Sadie, they were wide-eyed and tragic, fragile, herdlike things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods about who'd touched them where or hit them or abandoned them and a million other sad sap excuses for why they did the Things They Did. Sadie couldn't be bothered to take it all in. Misery repulsed her. Self-pity even more. She especially couldn't understand the counselors and therapists who chose to work here. It made Sadie shudder to think about. If there was a special circle of hell for girls like her, and she suspected there might be, there was no doubt her eternity would be spent having to listen to other people's problems.
Sadie kept walking along the dirt path. Her steps were light and calculated. Wind blew up the mountain and through the trees. It smelled like the ocean, although she couldn't see the ocean, and Sadie reached to dig the nylon harness even further out of her crotch. Then she fished a soft pack of American Spirits and a book of matches from the front pocket of her coveralls. Crumbs of tobacco fell onto the ground. Brown curls littering the gray earth.
"You'll start a fire," a voice said.
Sadie looked up. One of the other girls from the camp-Laura? Lara? Laurel? whatever-was standing on the path. She was probably on her way back from the bathroom.
"Is that a warning or a declarative?" Sadie asked.
"It's common sense," the girl said, folding her arms in a way meant as threatening.
Sadie sighed. She found threats a curious thing because she didn't respond to them the way she was meant to. They didn't make her heart race or her pits sweat. And they didn't make her mouth fumble to come up with flush-faced apologies. No, threats made Sadie's skin grow cold and her brain grow mean. As if to prove her point, she reached up to light her cigarette, then threw the glowing match into the dry brush.
"Nothing common about it," she said.
* * *
Fourteen minutes and two American Spirits later, Sadie made her way back to the ropes course. The counselors sniffed the air like they knew what she'd been doing, but said nothing. They couldn't change her, and they weren't paid enough to try. Besides, they already had their hands full trying to coax the rest of the girl-herd up into the trees where they were meant to leap into free fall, crab walk across high-strung cables, and conquer their innermost fears. A losing battle. Some of the girls cried and trembled, refusing to move. Still others squared their jaws and pushed their shoulders back, going for brazen courage, but failing hard. They had it all wrong, of course. Bravery wasn't required to conquer fear.
One of the course leaders, a middle-aged man, and a guileless one at that, strode right over to Sadie. He wore his knee socks rolled up and a full-brimmed hat. A patch of zinc oxide striped his nose.
"You ready to give it a try, sweetheart?" His smile was warm and wide enough to show his teeth.
Sadie gave her own smile right back. "Sure, I'm ready."
"What's your name?"
"Sadie," she said. "Sadie Su."
"You don't look Chinese."
Sadie's smile grew bigger. "That's what my daddy says."
The man blinked, but didn't respond. Instead, he reached out to clip his belay rope to her loosened harness. He did it as if it were something he'd done a million times. As if an act of connection were as common as cruelty.
Sadie stood very still. At the clanking of their carabiners, she felt no rubbing of their fates, no flutter of destiny. The man droned on with his droll safety instructions, words full of caution, like the way he wore his clothes, and when he was done, she turned and scrambled up the footholds of an old-growth sequoia.
At the top of the ladder, Sadie paused and looked down. She had to be eighty feet in the air. She felt the burning eyes of the other girls, watching her from the forest floor below, like heat rising from dying coals. Maybe they wished she'd fall. She didn't doubt it. She'd wish it, too, if she were them.
The wind blew harder, fiercer. Off in the distance a hint of blue-gray was visible between the trees. Sadie squinted, and there it was at last-the Pacific Ocean, wild and abstract, like something from a dream. With a groan, she used her arms to haul herself up onto the flat wood platform above her. Then she walked to the edge and bent her legs.
When she felt like it, she jumped.
* * *
The evening after the ropes course was Sadie's last night at the wilderness camp. She'd done her time here, ten long weeks, and now she lay in her cabin in the dark with her eyes open, restless and unable to sleep. What was next for her? What did she need? Answers, conviction, eluded her, forging a loose sense of confusion she was unaccustomed to. She'd always faced uncertainty head on, only this time, she wasn't going anywhere uncertain.
Sadie was going home.
It was a hard truth that in the morning, she would return to her family's vast wine country estate, four years older than when she'd left and pretty much none the wiser. In that time she'd attended and been asked to leave three separate boarding schools, including one in Düsseldorf and one in Paris. The last had been in New York State, a crisp-aired campus ringed by apple orchards and brick homes with woodstoves, all tucked in a sun-dappled turn of the Hudson Valley. The things she'd done there not only ensured that no other private school would take her, they'd gotten her sent here as part of the legal settlement. Only here was as useless as there. Everything, everywhere, was geared toward giving her things: tools, skills, knowledge, new ways of being. All garbage. Sadie figured you couldn't take in what you weren't missing in the first place. She liked the way she was. It was other people she had a problem with.
A mile to the south, in a row of tent cabins scattered among lush ferns on the edge of a slick rock creek bed, sat the wilderness camp's male counterpart. Every night, the boys came knocking for the girls. Like Pavlov's dogs, they showed up, a steady stream of slobbering, dick-wielding fuckups and addicts and head cases. The girls in Sadie's cabin always went with them. Always did things in preparation that made her stomach sick-like plucking their eyebrows and shaving the hair between their legs and ass cheeks.
But on that last night, one of the boys came for Sadie. His name was Chad. He had a peach-fuzz mustache and a row of pimples on his neck. She went with him into the woods, onto the bare ground beneath the stars.
"I won't fuck you," she told him.
"Then I want a blow job," he said.
Sadie wouldn't do that either and whining didn't help his cause. But when she unzipped his jeans and reached her hand in to touch him, Chad shut up fast. She sat up while she did it, the touching, keeping her eyes open so she could watch him go from very bold to very still. Sadie liked watching. There was power in bearing witness. Pleasure, too. After, she hiked her own skirt up, crawled on top, and pressed herself against him. That was all it took.
That was all she needed.
"Why are you here?" Chad whispered, as they lay together in the dirt, side by side, like animals. Sadie had her cigarettes out again and gave one to Chad when he asked.
"I'm leaving tomorrow. Going home."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"I got kicked out of boarding school. Third one in four years. Only thing left is the public alternative."
"I tried to kill somebody," Sadie said softly, and Chad laughed in a way that made her want to strangle him. He laughed like he didn't believe her.
"Yeah, me too." Cigarette gripped between teeth and lips, he held his bare wrists up in the moonlight so that she could see the scars there, jagged pink lines that resembled streaks of lightning flashing across the morning sky.
"That's not what I meant," Sadie said, although this was partially a lie. She did mean it that way, but she meant it another way, too, and she wanted Chad to understand that. She wanted him to know that she was both worse and different than him, different than everyone here, with their sadness and their anger and all their messy needs. It was bad enough, her rubbing against him like she had, taking what she wanted, just because she'd felt hot and aching and driven.
Hurting other people wasn't all that different, though. That was also a form of taking and she did it all the time. Sometimes she wished she didn't. Sometimes the things she took were unforgivable and she'd give anything to have better control over herself.
Then again, sometimes Sadie was bored.
And oftentimes, that was more than enough.
Copyright © 2015 by Stephanie Kuehn