I woke up in the middle of a flooded basement. The carpet on the ground reeked of mildew and had started to unravel. The walls were painted eggshell white.
Jon and Ramsey and Jake were still asleep. An unfamiliar woman in army attire sat in a chair reading a book while her walkie-talkie went in and out.
The door opened and a stocky waspy-looking man in a well-fitted army uniform entered. His name was Ort. I looked away and pretended to fall back asleep when he made eye contact with me. My body was in agony from the day before and my stomach growled with anger, desperate for food.
The woman was gone and Ort stood over us, careful not to make a sound. Judging from the day before I couldn’t imagine why we were not yet face down in the mud eating stale bread off the creek bed.
Why was he letting us sleep?
Ort kept an eye on his watch,, as if he had promised himself he wouldn’t kill us until the second hand made it to a certain number. Finally there was a
“WAKE UP!! UP UP UP UP!!!!!!! TWO MINUTES!!! GET UP!!! PACKS PACKED AND OUTSIDE IN FORMATION!!! YA’LL GOT TWO MINUTES IF YA’LL WANT CHOW!!!!!!”
The large backpack I was assigned by the Colonel lay next to my wet sleeping bag stuffed with a bunch of long underwear and tarp and just enough room to shove my sleeping bag and sleeping bag mat back inside.
Ort walked up to me with stern eyes right as I had placed my boots on and tied my pack shut.
He grabbed my pack, untied the string doling it closed, and turned it upside down until everything inside was drenched in water, scattered all over the basement. Then he flung my pack across the room and said
“NOT FAST ENOUGH!!! THIRTY SECONDS!!! GO!!!”
Jon and Ramsey and Jake stood unsure what to do… their packs were still packed.
Ort looked appalled as he flew over to each of them and emptied their bags all over the floor as well.
“FIFTEEN SECONDS TO BE OUTSIDE!!! GO!!!”
But it wasn’t quick enough. By the time we were outside the basement in line formation he told us to get back inside, empty our packs and repack them in
“TEN SECONDS!!! I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY BOYS!!!! MOVE MOVE MOVE MOVE!!!”
Finally we made time after six tries and stood, exhausted, at five in the morning, in line formation by the side of a cliff that overhung right by the entrance of the basement entrance.
He handed us each two small packets of non-sugared cereal, one carton of milk and an apple, no spoons, and told us
“TWO MINUTES. EAT!”
I ripped the milk open and poured it into the cereal and sat down—
“GET THE HECK UP”
I got back up and shoved the cereal down my throat in a matter of seconds. Ort stared at his watch the whole time.
“DONE! STOP EATING!! YA’LL TAKE ONE MORE BITE YOU AIN’T EATIN LUNCH!!”
I hadn’t finished my apple. It looked so deliciously red, even if it was busted up and bruised on the outside…
“DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!! I’LL BURN YOU SO HARD YOU AS EVEN THINK BOUT TAKIN ANOTHER BITE!!!”
I stared at it, so fucking hungry.
“SEE THAT TREE?”
and Ort pointed to a tree at the bottom of a cliff and got in my face like he may hit me.
“YOU BETTER MAKE SURE YOU DON’T MISS IT. NOW GO”
I threw the apple as best I could at the tree.
Ort stood there staring at me. We stood in silence for a minute until he gave his next order
“Who wants to be inducted first?”
What? What the hell did he mean ‘inducted’.
“Inducted into wha——“
“——YOU SHUT THE HECK UP!!!”
I shut up.
He was talking to me.
I knew the drill by then…
“Since you volunteered first, I’ll give you an option. You can either run down to that tree and grab your apple or you can walk down to that tree, find your dang apple, finish it and run back up.”
I looked at the cliff and wondered if he was serious. How the fuck could I run down a cliff?
“WELL?!?!?!?! WHAT’S IT GONNA BE?!?!?!?”
Before I could even answer he shouted
“DOWN! ALL OF YOU!! DOWN!!!! FRONT LEAN AND REST!!!”
I dropped my pack and—
“YOU BETTER PUT THAT PACK BACK ON IF YOU EVER WANT IT BACK!!!”
I put my pack back on and got in the pushup position.
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
All of us went up and down to his cadence call and shouted at the end of the four-count pushup:
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
And on and on we went until we hit ten and then
“GET UP UP UP UP UP!!!!! LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN!!! YOU GONNA RUN DOWN THAT CLIFF OR RUN UP THAT CLIFF?? SIMPLE CHOICE WHAT’S IT GONNA BE?!!?”
That was our second morning on Isolation. We ran up and down that fucking cliff until Jon threw up. It lasted four hours.
We stopped by a large pile of firewood in the middle of a vacant field when another voice smacked my eardrum.
When I saw Neil Gary in his winter army attire I knew things were about to get ugly. He had no emotion in his eyes and stared right through us with rage.
POST meant we had to form a line in front of him.
By then it was getting hard to walk.
His face was like a brick.
“WHAT’S WRONG BOYS, YOU TIRED?! GET BACK TO WHERE YOU WERE! I DON’T EVER WANT TO SEE YOU WALK AGAIN! WHEN I SAY POST, YOU RUN!”
We returned to the pile of firewood.
Again we formed a straight line.
“NOT FAST ENOUGH! GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN! THIS TiME GRAB THREE LOGS!!
We grabbed three logs and ran back as fast as we possibly could.
“NOT A SINGLE WORD.”
We followed Neil down a trail into the woods until he walked over to a tree stump and sat down and took out his lunch.
“I WANT YA’LL TO WATCH EVERY DANG BITE! DON’T YOU EVEN THINK OF DROPPIN THEM LOGS!!!”
My mouth watered. My stomach ached. My legs wobbled. My mind wandered.
With a mouth full of food he said
“DOWN! AND DON’T DROP THEM LOGS!!! DOWN DOWN DOWN!!!
How the fuck could I get into a pushup position within dropping the logs?? What the fuck? One by one each leg fell as I tried with all my might to somehow figure it out.
“WHAT THE HECK I SAY?!?! GET BACK UP!!! GRAB THOSE DAMN LOGS!!! THOSE LOGS TOUCH THAT GROUND AGAIN WE GONNA STAND HERE TILL THE SUN GOES DOWN!!”
I finally figured out I could balance the logs on my back as I waited in pushup position, better known as front-lean-and-rest.
“RAMSEY!!! CALL CADENCE!!!”
Ramsey was tough as he shouted
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
and we all responded
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
We reached fifty.
Neil was finishing up, pouring himself some coffee from his army thermos.
Then he took us to a small shed on the North side of the lake, the infamous lake that Hidden Lake founded it’s name. What happened behind that lake was the reason the Academy was shut down in 2012 for the “tragic maltreatment of troubled youth”.
I happened to be one of those trouble youth.
The shed, or cabin rather, became known as the IsoCabin.
An axe lay propped up next to a tree. I thought about threatening to kill him.
“I’M COLD! SOMEONE MAKE ME SOME FIREWOOD FOR MY FIRE!!”
I had never split wood before. My fingers could barely feel the axe as I picked it up.
“YOU BETTER BE MUCH FURTHER AWAY FROM ME WITH THAT AXE! THE REST OF YOU GATHER ME SOME WOOD!”
I went off into the forest to look for fallen down trees to chop as Ramsey and Jon picked up big sticks one by one and brought them to Neil.
I was going delirious from hunger, lack of sleep and cold as the hours went by.
I stared at Neil’s fire. He was toasty warm.
I felt sick.
A voice came in through Neil’s radio.
“Neil, come in. Over.”
It sounded like Dee.
“Go ahead Dee. Over.”
“What’s your locale?”
His signature snicker could be heard embedded into the way he asked our location. It was as if he had been looking forward to seeing us ever since we ran on his shift two days ago.
“We’re out by the new isolation cabin. Over.”
Ramsey, scared as could be, mouthed the words
“DEE. IS. COMING.”
Jon mouthed back: “DEE?!”
Suddenly footsteps and crunching leaves.
Then a laugh.
“You punk ass kids— Runnin’ away on CHRISTMAS?! Gettin’ MY ASS written up??! Oh HELL nah. Nuh uh.”
Neil smiled as Dee approached and said
“BRING YO ASSES HERE! POST!”
You know the routine… we dropped what we were doing and ran to him.
“Now, ya’ll being run-risks and what not, I don’t know if it safe you wearing them shoes. Give em here.”
It was less than twenty degrees outside.
“Socks too. Don’t want them gettin all dirty.”
Should I run? No. He’ll kick the shit out of me, I thought. What were our options? We had none. We threw our socks and shoes to Dee as he bent down, tied each pair of laces together and threw them toward Neil’s fire.
“They eat chow yet” he asked Neil.
“Got it right here.”
It must have been ten or so at night. We never got to lunch. Those two non-sugared cereals and a few bites of an apple were all we had eaten, and that back at five in the morning.
Neil held up a loaf of cheese sandwiches.
Dee smiled and asked
“See that creek right there?”
He pointed to a creek ten feet away.
“You ain’t eatin nothin till that creek dammed up an empty.”
Even Neil watched with a bit of discomfort… maybe he thought Dee was taking it too far? I had no idea. Al I knew was I felt like I would faint any second.
We walked over to the creek.
I dipped my foot in, it was freezing.
“Don’t make me push ya’ll in. MOVE!”
I stepped in and almost fell over.
“NOW EMPTY THAT CREEK!”
We began emptying as much water as we could.
My feet were completely numb. My face felt raw from the icy air.
Dee was getting mad but it was impossible. The water kept re-filling.
“Guess ya’ll don’t wanna eat.”
Dee grabbed the loaf of cheese sandwiches.
“Ya’ll no what? I’m hungry.”
He opened the bag and shoved a cheese sandwich in his mouth.
“Mmm! That’s good.”
Jon got out of the creek. Dee’s eyes flared.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOIN!?”
But Jon was cracking… again…
“Fuck this shit!”
Neil stood up and watched how Dee handled the scene.
“BOY DON’T MAKE ME WHOOP YOU!”
Dee grabbed Jon by the shirt as Jon tried to defend himself, but it was no use. Dee was the size of an ox. He threw him against a tree with breeze (and Jon was not small. He was 6’2”).
“HUG THAT DAMN TREE BOY!”
Dee pushed Jon harder against the tree until his arms wrapped around the trunk.
“NOW GET UPSIDE DOWN! LIKE A KOALA!”
We didn’t know what that meant, but my heart was thumping.
Dee knocked him to the ground.
“GET THEM FEET UP ON THE TREE!!!
Jon put his hands in the dirt and walked his feet up the trunk of the tree until he was practically upside down.
“NOW HANG! GET YOUR HANDS OFF THE GROUND!!”
Jon couldn’t do it. It was no easy task.
“OH NO?!!? YOU STILL DON’T LIKE TO LISTEN NOW DO YOU?!” and he threw all our food in the fire.
“GET YOUR HANDS OFF THE GROUND”
I could smell the cheese melting. I couldn’t take it any more. I got out of the water and frantically rubbed my feet trying to gain feeling back.
“YOU! GET BACK IN THAT WATER!”
He seemed blurry. My eyesight was a bit off.
Neil was toasty by the fire.
Dee rushed me and pretended to stomp on my feet until I fell back into the water then rushed back to Jon, who gripped the tree as hard as he could. His face was pressed against the bark so hard it looked like it was going to bleed.
“STAY THERE TILL I TELL YOU TO MOVE!!”
Jon held back tears.
Neil stopped eating a sandwich and ripped it into quarters. He dropped them on the dirt the screamed
“FRONT LEAN AND REST!”
It almost seemed like this was his way of saving Jon and us from Dee’s cruel (crueler) punishment.
Jon fell off the tree, his face full of blood.
Ramsey, Jake and myself got out of the creek as Neil screamed
“GET DOWN! FACE YOUR FOOD!!”
Was he talking about the little scrap of mud-covered sandwich laying in the dirt?
“When I say down, you take ONE bite, and ONLY one bite.”
Yes. He was. That’s exactly what he was talking about.
I lowered myself with all my strength. My arms were shaking. I took a bite but I missed and my teeth scrapped the ground.
The sound of my tooth against a tree root pierced my ears. Neil kept going as Dee stood with his arms crossed.
I went in for another bite but all I got was a bunch of dirt. I spit it out but there were still grains of sandy earth stuck all over my mouth.
Then Dee interrupted
Neil was laughing by the fire the whole time watching us try to get the sandwich in our mouth. Dee was ready to dish us out more.
“DIG ME A FIVE-FOOT HOLE! GO!”
Wait. That was it? Dinner was over?
I tried my best to wipe the mud off my tongue.
“WHAT I SAY?!?! DIG THAT HOLE!! GO!”
I spoke for the first time in a while
“But we don’t have a shovel—”
“NOW DIG ME A TEN-FOOT HOLE! YOU AIN’T SLEEPIN TILL YOU DIG ME A DANG HOLE!”
We hadn’t even had water since we passed a creek earlier that day and were allow to fill our hands up and gulp as much down as we could.
We grabbed sticks off the ground and started to dig but we were tripping and falling all over each other. I can’t imagine how pathetic we must have looked.
The tree roots got thicker and thicker the deeper we dug. We tried to cut through them but it was impossible. Hours passed and our hole was less than ten inches deep. We were covered in cold sweat and totally dehydrated without any food to nurture our hunger.
The sun started to rise. Finally…
Please please give me my fucking boots and socks back.
Neil chucked us our boots and socks.
God exists. Thank you thank you.
Neil walked us over to the creek…
“DRINK! BETTER MAKE SURE THAT WATER IS RUNNING OR YOU’LL BE SHITTING EVERYWHERE!”
After a few slurps of water, Neil pointed to a fallen down tree.
“GRAB THAT TREE!”
Wait, what about sleep? Yeah…. there was no sleep. Not that night at least.
I felt like dying
In my head I was strategizing how to get sent to jail, at least in jail they’d feed me and give me a place to sleep that was actually inside with a temperature above freezing.
I had to keep going.
No time to daydream or I’d collapse.
We all bent down together attempting to pick up the tree. With every ounce of strength we got it off the ground but then desperately struggled to not drop it on our feet.
“GET IT UP—“ said Neil, who was shortly interrupted by Dee as he finished Neil’s sentence
“— AND REPEAT AFTER ME!!! WE LIKE THIS PLACE WE LOVE THIS PLACE WE FINALLY FOUND A HOME” he chanted with an army-like melody. “SAY THAT SHIT AND DON’T YOU DROP THAT DAMN TREE!!”
We copied his melody
“WE LIKE THIS PLACE, WE LOVE THIS PLACE, WE FINALLY FOUND A HOME—“
Neil joined in
We knew the song… we were no strangers to this damn song. So we responded
“A HOME, A HOME, A HOME AWAY FROM HOME.”
And on we went
“WE LIKE THIS PLACE WE LOVE THIS PLACE WE FINALLY FOUND A HOME.”
“A HOME. A HOME. A HOME AWAY FROM HOME.”
We kept singing while Dee further instructed us on how to hold the tree
“NOW LIFT IT OVER YOUR HEAD AND BRING IT DOWN TO THE OTHER SHOULDER!! NOW!! GO GO GO!!!”
We lifted the tree up and brought it to our other shoulder.
We lifted the tree over our heads again.
Suddenly Jon let go and the tree nearly fell down on our feet and shattered our bones. He threw up in the leaves.
Dee and Neil didn’t give a shit.
“PICK IT BACK UP!! QUICK QUICK!!”
Jake, Ramsey and myself somehow got the tree back up.
Dee shouted to Jon while he was still vomiting all over
“GET BACK ON THAT TREE BOY!!”
“HURRY JON! I’M LOSING IT!”
We got the words out, that time without so much of a melody to adjoin the words
“WE LIKE THIS PLACE, WE LOVE THIS PLACE, WE FINALLY FOUND A HOME!”
“A HOME! A HOME! A HOME AWAY FROM HOME!”
“KEEP THAT FUCKIN TREE OVER YOUR FUCKIN HEADS!”
My vision started to go blurry. My eyes stung from the salt as sweat dripped down to my mouth.
Neil wouldn’t shut up
Dee wouldn’t stop laughing.
“WE LIKE THIS PLACE
WE LOVE THIS PLACE
WE FINALLY FOUND A HOME!
A HOME AWAY FROM HOME!”