“Dirt.” Part 3 – Failing Graduation

If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2 to the series, click the links to check them out.

It was strange, being in a waiting room in all my filth, I thought.

It had been well over six weeks since I had gotten to shower or change my clothes and I sat, caked in grime, urine and weeks of desert sweat, tapping my boot to the sound of the cheery elevator music in a doctor’s office. The walls were covered with horrible pictures of cute animals holding cigarettes in their mouths, all emblazoned with various anti-smoking slogans. A little boy and his mother sat as far as they could from the staff member escorting me and of course, the rancid smells billowing with each of my movements. All at once, I was self conscious. The door swung open.

“Skye?” The aide calling my name looked sweet and young.

Just wait till she is packed into an exam room with me, I thought to myself as I followed her down the hall, past a beeping nurses’ station and into a papery white exam room. I sat in a side chair, ignoring the nauseous green table. The aide turned her face from me and began typing furiously into the computer. My face flushed, knowing why: I reeked.

“So you are being seen for exhibiting fever and West Nile Virus symptoms. Other members in your camp have come down with it and we are required to treat each of you.” The aide huffed, doing her best to breathe without gasping. I felt for her.

“I had a bad fever and couldn’t do anything for a few days but it’s over now. I feel shaky a lot and the food is so bad-” I was cut off at the squeeze of my escort’s hand around my thin bicep.

“Yeah, I got really sick for a bit. We all did. I’m fine now.” I finished lamely, watching my hopes of my escort stopping for McDonald’s fly out the window.

“Let’s take your vitals and the doctor will be in to see you soon.”

I offered up my arm, grimacing as the smell went full face into the aide as she leaned forward to take my blood pressure.

As the door clanged behind the likely gasping aide, I purposefully ignored my escort. Though he had simply picked me and two other kids up to take us into Shoshone, Idaho for a checkup after G-group came down with West Nile Virus. We later learned two students had died after being told they were faking or to drink more water.

“I spent three days in my sleeping bag, in my wool blankets in the sun when it was 110 degrees out.” I spoke quietly, but the anger in my voice left the space open.

“No one is watching or listening. I just got psych tested after days of not holding down food or water in a barn with a stampede of rats. No one even knows how Angie ended up here or in an older group or who her family is. Am I really ever going to get out of here?”

The desperation screamed seemingly around the cracks in the door because before my escort could answer, it swung open.

A silvery short-haired man in spectacles and the expected lab coat ambled into the room, shaking my escort’s hand and not looking at me.

“So looks like we are here to check to see if you are suffering from the West Nile Virus? Sounds like some of you got it out there.” He reached out and I turned my face from his hands.

“We all got it but all of us got over it except for Angie. She’s only 12 and we don’t know what happened to her. I’m fine now. You’re late- I had it last week and they didn’t help any of us.” I bitterly swept my eyes in the direction of my jailer.

“Good! Glad to hear you are feeling better. To be safe, I am prescribing a round of antibiotics and I hope to never see you again. Be good out there, kid.”


The drive back took hours, and I loved every second of the air conditioning and the cushioned seats. Even though I had only been living in the dirt for six weeks, it was hard to imagine people lived with such an everyday luxury.

All too soon, the green Suburban had rumbled into the desert bush and after some time, billowed dust out on my G-Group camp mates- we were back.

I had been unfortunate enough to have been taken to the doctor’s office on our layover, so my single day of rest had been lost. Nonetheless, the treat of being indoors had bolstered my spirits and worried me at the same time with the same thought: I was to return to the real world soon where I would be fed and physically safe, but I didn’t know what was to become of me.

Shortly after my return, the group therapist had come. She hadn’t been my greatest fan after catching me trying to put a sharpened stick in an unstable group member’s hand and telling her to go after the staff, and I didn’t blame her.

I had been moved from Individual to Family phase shortly after watching one of the kids get whipped off in the early light to the doctor with a serious case of West Nile. Determined to leave as soon as the program permitted, I had built and perfected my traps and completed my curriculum work. I painfully read the ‘impact letter’ from my father explaining why he had put me in the program.

I will never remember all of its contents, I thought as I slowly crumpled it along with my heart and let it fall from my palm into the ember remains of the fire. As it burst into flame, I pulls my knees to my dirty chest and put my head in my arms. I was unloved and forgotten, I realized. My father had written in his letter than my sweet blue eyes had been replaced with cruelty and demonic hatred. My head drooped and I had gone to bed that night dreaming I had been adopted by my friend Brianna’s mother and would get to live happily ever after.

“Skye! Hey. Time to get up. Big day today!” I heard my boots and clothing thunk into the dirt by my head as I slowly groaned upright just in time to see Mary’s dirty orange head bouncing to the next camp; it was her job to pass out our gear in the morning.

I finished pulling my pants, then boots on. as I shoved my arms through my sleeves, I dropped my untied heels to the center of camp; today we found out if any of us moved to the next phase: solo. After three semi-monitored days braving it alone in the wilderness, we would regroup into a co-ed graduate team to work with struggling new students in the few days leading up to graduation. I had been told that books were given out on solo and thus had greedily awaited the opportunity to vanish into another reality, even if for a bit. As I got the the center of camp, I noticed there was a much larger pile of ‘graduate gear’ than usual. The names were announced.

“Olivia!”

“Mary!”

“Brianna!”

“Maggie!”

“Jill!”

My head drooped; the gear was almost gone as each girl rose to collect her pack and wait for the green Suburbans to whip them into the next dimension of desert life.

“Skye!”

I leapt to my feet and whooped, leaving a hand to hold my pants firmly in place. Though I’d gotten far in the program, my body had not taken well to desert life and the required diet. Reduced to skin and bones, I could feel the light in my eyes as I beamed; the suffering was almost through.

“There also one last thing to figure out regarding parent visits at graduation, so you will each meet with Megan to talk.” I didn’t care; Megan had offered me a choice as to whether or not my parents would come and I breathed a sign of relief, telling her to have them stay away. Even here, I realized, life without them was better and more predictable.

It wasn’t long before we were bustled, packs, sticks and all assortments of odors, into three Suburbans. We were being split among three graduate solo groups, we were told. My confusion mounted as I watched my G-group girls be dropped off together at other sites, never to be seen again.

“You’re going to the runaway group, Skye. No use trying where we are taking you.” My escort laughed heartily as we rumbled on, billowing dust.

After some time we happened upon a huddled group of new solo campers and a couple instructors; as the dust slowly faded and the echo of slamming doors reverberated on the rocks of the enclave we had stopped in, I picked up my newly-dumped back and stared at the rock formations in wonder; I was more than happy to spend days alone in a place like this.

“SUMMER?!”

When I saw my former instructor I raced to her, throwing my dirt-encrusted body into her brightly colored tye-dye shirt. One arm around me, she pushed her glasses back on her nose and ran her hand through her blonde hair.

“Skye! Wow. You have been here for a long time. Are you feeling ok?” As she held my thin arms and looked me up and down, I realized I must have done some wasting away since she had last seen me.

“Promise to give me a good solo site?” I asked her excitedly.

“I’ll do my best kiddo!” She grinned back, an odd look in the corner of her eye.


Evening went in the usual regimen and exhausted, I slept hard in the feeling of safety in the enclave. Come morning, I knew we would be assigned to our solo campsites, where we would spend the next 48 hours alone.

“Packs rolled? Who isn’t ready?” The staff member hollered at the group, but we were all ready.

“One by one, we will come get you. You will hike with us until we tell you to mark out your site. You may not comment or complain and you must remain there until we tell you solo phase is over. Some of you will be given books chosen by your therapist. The rest of you will need to find things in your curriculum to do. We will bring you a toilet bucket. You may not dig a latrine or use anything but the bucket. At the end of Solo you will be in charge of disposing of the waste bag. An instructor will check on you in the morning and evening in case you need anything. Let’s GO!”

We waited, sitting in the dirt by our packs as we were called by name. For once, mine was called fairly quickly. To my dismay, it wasn’t Summer. Seizing the seatbelt straps on my pack, I heaved it to my shoulder. Though nearly emaciated, I had grown stringy, lean and very strong. Shouldering the pack fully, I put my shoulders forward, picked up a toilet bucket and lumbered after the group leader.

The site was simple rock and offered several rock ledges for me to recline on, however, with only a 15’x15′ space, I couldn’t put the toilet bucket far enough away. After using a latrine and watering bushes for months, I had learned that moisture attracts bees and hornets; the toilet bucket presented no exception. Edging my centimeter-thin mat on the furthest rock ledge possible, I wondered what would come after the blessed two days of silence pressing against my ears, muffling me from reality. I had learned a new kind of escape here within the quiet.

Megan had allowed me a single novel, “The Outsiders”. Though I’d read it before, I read it a couple more times before I tossed it beside my loudly swarming toilet bucket. Only a day and a half more to go, I thought as I cursed Megan for choosing such a short book for me. Wait a minute, I thought as I glanced around at my campsite things. A smile slowly formed as the realization of a new freedom sank in, spreading across my face.

I have a notebook- with empty pages. I have a pen!

Elated, I dove for the half-sized green notebook. Writing was my passion, my release and my company, but it had been years since I was freely allowed writing material. Out here, for the next 36 hours, I could write anything and everything I needed to lighten the anvil that had nestled atop my heart. Before I could begin to think, my pen began to move.

The sun beat down mercilessly on my unprotected 16 year old face, but I didn’t feel it. Spread eagled, I lay in the dirt beside my notebook, filled to every line and brim with writing. I had begun to doze off with a smile playing across my lips when I felt the sting- a hornet was sinking its stinger into the back of my left thigh.

Swearing, dancing and slapping, I flew from the dirt to the highest ledge in my enclosure. flapping away at my leg. Finally, my hand connected with the insect and my slap sank the stinger deeper into the skin.

Howling, I ripped the hornet from my leg and tried to squeeze out the venom. Looking around, I saw my bag of raw macaroni. After soaking it into a paste, adding sage from surrounding bushes and mashing the misture into a thick mush, I applied it to the sting to soothe the pain. A staff member wasn’t slated to check on me for many more hours.

Time ticked by. I counted the second with the trobs that pulsed through my leg; the swelling extended from the bite to encircle my entire thigh in angry, red swelling. Even I had realized I needed medication as my skin swelled enourmously, turning a deep purple. I stood periodically, feeling the heavy throb grow larger and more painful.

I sat back. Here I was, a newly minted 16 year old girl and I was forgotten by the sounds and buried in miles of pressing silence. I pressed my back flat the the earth and felt the baking dirt warm my dirt entrusted body. I was forgotten whether or not I was in society, but this was much more painless experience of isolation. Nothing chose to abandon me here; there was simply nothing to meet.

I played with a few baby mice, feeding them precious granola from my hand and smiling as one climbed aboard and snuggled my thumb.

I slept deeply through the howls of roaming coyotes and the chorus of insects trampling through the dark.. A few hours and true privacy had afforded me a release every cell in my body had screamed for. With no one to trust, all I could do to get sense out was on paper. I sighed; though it had been the most enormous relief I had experienced in at least a year, I knew from history that keeping the journal could only hurt me.

Waking before the morning staff check-in, I read and reread my notebook, then dropped it at my feet. I closed my eyes, looked up in thanks and before I could change my mind, I scuffed the small notebook off the edge of the cliff. Historically, my journals had been found too many times for me to carry it safely, so I soaked in the relief I could and prayed perhaps a stranger would one day find it and learn about me.

I sang, but my voice cracked everything a breeze kicked up the dust. The bees continued to buzz around the trash can. On a whim. I kicked it off the small cliff , smiling at the eventual satisfying clang and splatter.

The staff same to get me, announcing time was up and it was time to graduate. I looked one last time over the cliff before leaving the darkest of my secrets to the elements. It was time to leave the notebook and turn to face whatever the future was. I had come to realize happiness could never be hinged on my situation- otherwise I would have none.


“When the trucks arrive, you will see your parents exit the vehicles. You can find any hiding spot you want in these rocks and when the doors open, run down to see them!”

The other filthy teens surrounding me beamed, excited to see their parents. I, on the other hand, was elated from the lunch we had just been fed after being picked up and trucked to a canyon for graduation. We had been served plain bread sandwiches with cold cuts wedged inside and the food we had been forced to eat for months was finally out of sight.

After hiking up into the crags surrounding the narrow canyon, the staff member grinned as he gave his final instruction and we erupted into cheers. I was excited to shower and eat more real bread sanwiches so I cheered along, relieved that while my fellow campers would be hugging on their parents, I would be curled up scoring hours of naps in my bedroll.

In the distance, several green Suburbans rumbled towards us, trailing behind an enormous cloud of dust.

“Everyone! Get behind a rock and don’t make a sound!”

We hunkered down behind the rocks, watching the caravan trek into the mouth of the canyon. I briefly wondered if this was a slice of what a highway ambusher felt right before an attack. Slowly, the train of vehicles ground to a stop.

The car doors popped open slowly and a multicolored group of slightly dazed-looking people emerged. I could hear the sharp intake of breath from the kids around me and rolled my eyes; I couldn’t imagine showing my parents that kind of affection.

“GO! GO! GO!”

At the cue from the staff member, the kids needed no further bidding and charged out from behind the rocks to go greet their parents, whooping and hollering.

I stood and pointlessly dusted myself off slowly. Casually, I began to step down the rocks to the caravan; There was no rush for me. I allowed myself a rare smile- I was finally at graduation, I didn’t have to see my parents and there would be extra time for me to rest. Soon I would be permitted my first shower and change of clothes in two months. Life was beginning to look up.

As I ambled down the hill, enjoying the sun on my face and happily watching my friends with their parents, I spotted a sunhat and glasses I would recognize anywhere. A load of bricks crashed into the bottom of my stomach and I stumbled slightly. Not him.

My father had spotted me and began beckoning.

This wasn’t right- the therapist had told me he wasn’t coming! My head spun, trying to clear him from my vision. I blinked hard, but when I opened my eyes, my father was a couple steps closer. My legs were still moving, I realized.

“Hey honey! Come give me a hug” His voice oozed tenderness.

Revulsion rose up and I swallowed it away, trying to process this new development. With relief, I thanked my legs as they carried me past my father and to Summer, the closest staff member.

“What is he doing here? You TOLD me I had a choice!” I tried to speak but the words emerged as a choked shout of rage. As the emotion began to sink in, I picked up speed until I was face-to-face with her, nearly shouting in fear.

“Why is he here?! Why did you let him come here? You lied to me!”

Summer stepped back, grasped my arm and firmly looked me in the eyes.

“I honestly don’t know what those arrangements are. Those are between you, your therapist and your parents and Megan is on two weeks of leave. I don’t know who we can call but you need to take some breaths. You’re at graduation, kiddo.” Her voice was low and rang sincerely.

My father had caught up to me and locked me in an embrace from behind. I flinched, remembering what being grabbed usually meant and with a hard twist, I ripped myself free of his grab and turned to face him, taking steps back.

“They gave me a choice if you came and I told them I didn’t want you here. I want you to leave.” My voice shook; it was the first time I had confronted him publicly.

“You’re going away for a long time and I wanted to see you. I wanted to see if you had healed and if you’re ready to be good and love me. I paid for the tickets and this gear so I am staying.” Still using his silkiest voice, I couldn’t blame the staff as their faces turned to confusion. This was not the father I had described to them.

I hesitated. On one hand, I could out him and call him out for all the abuse, for the months locked in the room and for the constant prescriptions. On the other hand, it was obvious my father had already won the small group that had turned to watch, demonstrating that he was kind and I was unreasonable. My blood turned cold as I realized there was no way I could gain credibility or get away from him in this place.

“Skye! Quit causing a scene, go to your site and get your shade shelter and bedroll made up. You’re camping together tonight.” A tall, red-bearded male bellowed at me from the caravan.

Thankful for any way to distract to get time to think, I obeyed. My father followed as I heaved the mutilated pack to my shoulder and stumbled towards my designated site. He carried a small lightweight camping bag, complete with inflatable mattress and every imaginable camping accessory in the most expensive brand. I rolled my eyes.

As my father fiddled with his pack and straps, I jerked together a shade shelter and pulled my bedroll as far from him as I could. As I unpacked my curriculum and notebook, I breathed a small prayer of thanks for the sense to have already disposed of my journal. With my father suddenly present, I realized I’d saved myself from much more anguish.

“Smile for your mom!”

As I looked up, my father snapped a picture, beaming. My temper flared and I shoved my canteen in my mouth and took a deep gulp before saying anything regrettable.

My father took advantage of the silence, beginning to show me his gadgets. My anger began to build. I had written home a single time to tell them a student had died, that we had gotten West Nile, that we weren’t permitted showers or a change of clothes and that the food was so bad most kids tried to bury it rather than eat. I thought of how I had suffered even more in the months leading up to my arrival in the program. Feelings attached to the thoughts and my mind heaved at the injustice. Nobody believed me and no one was listening. My father finally had me contained where he could ignore or visit me when he wanted. With the label of dishonesty he announced my arrival at each program with, my claims fell on deaf ears.

“Skye. come try this.” My father’s voice cut through my churning rage.

“No thanks.” I needed to step away. My temper was rising quickly.

“I said come here and try this.”

I could hear the glint of danger in his voice, but there were others around and I felt braver.

“I said no. Thanks. I’m not interested in your gadgets. Are you interested that you called me a liar about not being able to shower and now you can smell from from twenty feet away? Are you interested about why I’m so thin or about why kids died?” Like the pop of a balloon, the edge in his voice had brought everything rushing out at once. I bit my lip, fighting hysterics.

A small group had begun to gather, mostly of staff members, to watch my short diatribe. Unaware I was having a full trauma response, the tree-sized staff member with the red beard stepped forward.

“Skye you better watch yourself. You do NOT talk to your father with disrespect.” His voice reverberated in my face as he loped over in a few easy strides.

“Oh yeah? How about he beats the shit out of you and locks you in a room for months and doesn’t let you talk to ANYONE the whole time and see if you don’t want to fuck him up.” I knew I’d crossed every possible line, so I surged across in all-out fury. My chest was heaving, fighting hysterics.

Red Beard looked at me in surprise and then anger.

“Do you want to graduate today, Skye? His voice was low and dangerous.

“I think she just wants to run up the bill. I think you need to apologize to me, Skye.” My father had gotten up and moved to stand next to Red Beard. He hooked his hands in his new lightweight adventurer pants and smirked.

Though the distraction with the staff member had helped me put a clamp on myself and begin to regain control of the overwhelming sense of injustice, my father’s voice reignited me. He had me trapped and he knew it.

Scooping a tennis-ball sized rock from the ground, I hurled it at his gadgets. Hearing the breaking sound as it made connection, I didn’t stop to look as I quickly scooped another rock and pulled my arm back to heave it into my father’s smug face. A hand closed around my wrist; Summer had come up behind me.

The rock thumped to the ground, the only sound in the shocked canyon. I stared in surpirse- I didn’t know I had it in me to try to harm my father. Though friends had told me over and over to protect myself, I’d never raised a hand against him. This time, I’d lost my temper and had made the attack.

“Get her pack. Roll it up and put it in the back of that truck.” Red Beard barked through the silence to another staff member, who clambered over to my things.

“Skye, you’re done. Get in the truck.” The order unfroze me and I looked at Red Beard in surprise. He wasn’t going to force me to stay with my father as a punishment?

Grateful for any reason to put feet between my father and I, I briskly turned and walked the long way around the truck to avoid having to pass my father. Without a final glance, I got in the Suburban and slammed the door, finally away from him. I took a breath.

It didn’t cross my mind to wonder what was going to happen. My pack was hastily rolled and thrown in the back of the SUV. Red Beard got behind the wheel, slamming the door shut on a large tumbleweed as he got in. He didn’t look at me. Summer got in the passenger seat and we rolled away, leaving my father alone with the happy families in the canyon.

I breathed and sagged against the bench seat, gulping for air. He was gone. It was ok. He was gone, I told myself over and over.

“You’ve got some serious anger problems, kid. I never see disrespect like that at graduation.” Red Beard took advantage of the silence.

“You don’t know my father and I don’t owe you anything. You were just a dick without asking questions.” As I spoke, I realized I needed to get on top of my anger. I was being a punk.

“Well congratulations kiddo. You’re going back to Orientation. It’s time for you to try this program again and do it right.” He turned to look at me expectantly as he declared my consequence.

I was unruffled- after all, as bad as the program had been, it was still the best living I’d had in a long time.

“Do I get the shower and new treated clothes for West Nile the new kids get?” I asked eagerly.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, kid? No. You don’t get shit.” Red Beard cranked the rock music up, drowning out any chance of further questions.

As the Suburban bellowed dust and we rocketed along, I smiled. For the first time, I’d talked back to my father without major injury to me, that was a groundbreaking win. My life wasn’t going to get catastrophically worse in another possibly abusive program; it would simply stay the same. This was a very good outcome, I realized.

“Congratulations Skye,” the instructor shouted over the music as I rolled the window down and let the wind whip through my filthy tangle of hair.

“You are the first student ever to fail graduation.”


Want to know what happens next? Read The Underage Prisoner Transfer!

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