New Girl (from Jesus Land)

By Julia Scheeres

A new girl arrives from eastern Kentucky. This means I'm no longer the lowest ranker at Escuela Caribe, the Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic where my parents have sent my brother, David, and me. This means that I no longer scrub toilets. This means I have a better shot at a second helping of dessert. I welcome her arrival.

Her name is Jolene and she's fifteen. She's got bleached, permed hair that cascades to her skinny butt in straw-colored coils and at night, she sits in her bunk and combs it out with a special rubber-tipped pick, one coil at a time. It is her pride and joy.

Jolene's taken hard to the loss of freedom and often plunges her face into her hands with a small moan, as if all this were a thing too ghastly to behold.

When our housefather, Bruce, gives her push-ups, she chews on her bottom lip a few seconds before lowering herself to the ground, and all his tomato-faced shrieking won't speed her along. Sometimes I catch her staring at me with confused eyes, as if she were waiting for an explanation. I look away; she'll soon find out there's none to be had.

On a Sunday before vespers we learn why Jolene is here. Bruce picks me to fetch his water, and then we sit in the metal circle to tell our stories.

I now know my line by heart, as I am called upon to repeat them often.

"I was a fornicator and an alcoholic," I say whenever a staffer asks me what brought me to The Program. As I say my line, I gaze at my shoes, striving to appear humbled. I do this well, and get consistent high points for Being Totally Truthful and Honest, Facing Reality.

When it's Jolene's turn to confess, she looks around the circle blankly.

"Ah honestly don't know why I'm here," she says in a hillbilly drawl so backwoods it makes the rednecks back home seem positively citified.

Bruce narrows his eyes at her response, and the girls around me shift uneasily on their patio chairs.

"You do so know," Bruce says in a tight voice. His voice rises several octaves when he's upset, into the soprano range, and it's a scary thing to behold. "You know perfectly well why you were sent here."

"Well, Ah do know that momma married herself a borned agin man, and that's when my troubles began," Jolene says, flipping a long blonde corkscrew over her shoulder. "Ah shoulda known they was storyin' about this place. That rich old Briggity Britches was up to no good, no how."

When she says this, I stuff my fist in my mouth to keep from laughing and Susan coughs into her hand to do the same.

Becky, the group leader, turns to Jolene.

"Jesus forgives his children, Jolene," she says in her earnest bird voice. "He loves you. But to receive His forgiveness, we must first admit our mistakes."

Jolene sucks in her cheeks as if she were preparing to spit.

"Ah don't need no forgivin, cuz Ah ain't done nothing wrong," she says, her black eyes flashing. "And I cain't say I much care for this Jesus character anyhows."

Bruce bolts to his feet.

"Would you like me to tell everyone why your parents sent you here?"

"That would be my momma, cuz my daddy died when I was…"

"Jolene here had a game she played with the boys in her town, called 'Health Clinic…"

"Nah, we it was 'House Call' and it…"

"This ritualistic sexual abuse took place at her home, while her poor mother was slaving away as a maid in order to …'"

"Wasn't no maid, she worked in a hospital…"

"Quiet!" Bruce roars.

Jolene crosses her arms and hunkers down in her chair, glaring at him.

"These boys would take turns having carnal knowledge of Jolene, right there under her poor mother's roof."

Becky puts a hand on Jolene's shoulder and Jolene jerks away from it. I study at her baggy Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt and wonder what's so special about the stick figure underneath that all these boys would crave it. She lifts her chin and stares back at me defiantly.

"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" Bruce asks her.

"All that happened 'fore momma found herself that rich old Bapdist and decided to become a fancy lady. 'Fore that, she paid no mind at all."

Bruce raises his index finger with an ah-ha expression on his face.

"So you confess to being a fornicator."

"A forni-what?"

"You had sex before marriage."

She shrugs.


"Fornication is an abomination in the eyes of our Lord!"

"An abomini-what?"

"Sin! Evil! Wrong!"

"Wasn't like we was hurting no one," Jolene giggles, looking over at me. "Actually, it was kinda fun."

Bruce orders the rest of us out of the house, so he can converse alone with Jolene. We all know what this means: calisthenics, threats, tears. Big zeroes in the Facing Reality and the Courtesy and Respect boxes.

Becky leads us into the darkening field beside our dormitory, where we sit on the machete-hewn grass and sing "Seek Ye First" and "Sandy Land" and "Humble Thyself."

But no matter how high we raise our voices, we can still hear Bruce bellowing inside the cement house. We slap no-see-ums from our bare arms and scream the lyrics at the fading horizon. We sing until our mouths go dry and the night wraps itself around each one of us like a shroud, and the raging finally stops.

At Vespers, Jolene bends her head to pray and doesn't raise it up again.

The pastor, a preacher-in-training from Kansas named Stephen ("call me Stevie") Erickson, asks us if Jesus will find our hearts 100% pure and hate-free when He returns to Earth, and I wonder how such a thing is possible.

David is also in a mood tonight. He scowls at the cross nailed to the front wall during the sermon – "Our God is a Tubular God" – with the old man worry line creasing his forehead, and he doesn't look once in my direction. Until I earn enough good behavior points, I am forbidden from communicating with my brother in any way. I can't speak to him, pass him a note, or so much as glance at him in a meaningful way. After the benediction, we congregate in the courtyard for Social Time. Debbie sets a platter of chocolate chip cookies on a picnic table, and this provokes squeals of delight. The cookies were held up in Customs for two months and are hard and stale, but they are still Chocolate Chip Cookies, the first some kids have tasted in over a year.

Susan and I sit on a cement step with our Bibles cushioning our butts and dig out the dark beads with our nails. We melt them on our tongues, one by one to make them last, each morsel a piece of Home.

"Been five months since I had chocolate," Susan says dreamily.

It's the small things that keep you sane at Escuela Caribe, an extra hour of sleep on Sunday, chocolate pudding cake on Thursday nights, a lukewarm shower instead of a cold one, stale chocolate chips.

Susan lifts a morsel to study it in the gaslight before dropping it into her mouth.

Ted Schlund, the dean of students, holds forth at the center of the courtyard, surrounded by staff. He twists and gesticulates as he recounts some story, and his audience hoots with laughter. As usual, his wife lists quietly at his side, her face upturned like a waiting child.

Across from us, Carrie and Heather huddle with their boyfriends at separate picnic tables while Becky hovers nearby to guard against an "unfitting corporal contact." The definition of said contact — as well as the Program boys we'd like to have one with — is a frequent topic of conversation for Susan and me. She believes that anything beyond a quick peck on the lips is considered inappropriate, but I think the definition could even include hand-holding, if it's done in a perverted manner. Like when a boy tongues the space between your fingers and you can feel it down between your legs.

Carrie's boyfriend rises stiffly from the picnic table, a bulge tenting the front of his Sunday slacks.

"My Lord, look at that woodie!" Susan whispers as he walks to the boys' bathroom. "Do you think he's going to abuse himself?"

We laugh, and I remember Reverend Dykstra telling our Young Calvinist group that "you can't jack off with Jesus" and laugh even harder. I look across the courtyard at David, but he's standing alone scowling at the ground and won't look up at me, so I can't use our secret code to ask him how he's doing.

A group of boys find a tennis ball under a bush and chuck it against the school building and it echoes loudly poing poing poing. One of them is Tommy Atherton, a 17-year-old Californian whom Susan and I secretly call "The Clydesdale."

We'd both like to have inappropriate sexual experiences with Tommy; he's got a basketball player's physique and talks like Sean Penn in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." We suck the chocolate from our tongues and watch his tan biceps curl beneath the sleeve of his lavender Polo shirt as he chucks the ball against the wall.

When a housefather roars at the boys to stop, they arrange themselves in a glum circle and toss the ball to each other underhanded. Tommy sees us staring at him and grins, and Susan perks up, sticking out her boobs and grinning back. When he sees this, Tommy smiles wider, and Susan sticks her boobs out further.

"You look real stupid doing that," I tell her, sore because I have no boobs to stick out. She ignores me.

A whistle blows to signal the end of Social Time, and Susan and I reluctantly stand to join the other girls.

No one notices that Jolene's gone until we've lined up to march back up the hill and there's an empty space behind me.

Bruce and Becky run back through the courtyard shouting Jolene's name. They're joined by other staffers who poke flashlights into the classrooms and toilets calling, "Jolene! Time to go, Jolene!" as if she'd simply misplaced herself. Susan and I exchange a wide-eyed look; we know better.

Ted struts around with his hands on his hips, barking orders. The Dominican guard trots up with his German Shepard and machete to consult with Ted and lopes off into the darkness, shouting in Spanish.

She's gone. Vanished onto the Dominican side of the barbed wire.

Bruce and the other men pile into the school's two vans, and the vehicles careen through the front gate, tires spitting gravel, and shoot down the narrow road toward Jarabacoa. We listen to them fade into the distance, and then Becky turns to us, her face as pale as a mushroom.

"Let's go," she says, her voice barely a whisper.

We walk up to the dorm under the moon's unblinking gaze in deep silence, no one daring give voice to the thought swirling through her head:

She's free.

The vans growl back up the hill a few hours later. I'm awake and thinking about Jolene and listening to the girls in the bunks around me as they sigh and moan and cry out at the demons who pursue them even in their sleep. Tires crunch on the driveway, a metal door slams, then footsteps clack across the patio and disappear into the houseparents' quarters. Bruce, returning without Jolene.

At the breakfast table, Bruce says Jolene made it all the way to the village by hiding in the shrubs alongside the road; the men passed her several times before one of them looked through the back van window and saw her metallic silver purse sparkling in the moonlight. I stare into my grape oatmeal as he speaks and imagine her tottering down the dirt road in her gray satin pumps, her white eyelet dress glowing. Did she have a plan, or was she blinded by panic? Was she happy? For a small while at least?

They hauled her back to the property and locked her in the room at the end of the courtyard where I spent my first night. Kids call it "The Hole."

After lunch, Ted Schlund tells us to remain seated for a special function and I prepare myself for the worst. David and I exchange a grim look across the picnic tables before Bruce leads Jolene into the courtyard, where she is made to sit on a stool before us. She's dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and she perches on the stool with her back curved in defeat, her platinum hair draped over her face like a corn tassel.

Ted quotes some scripture and makes some pronouncements, but my attention's fastened on the long scissors in his hand. When he's done talking, he grabs a fistful of Jolene's hair at her neck and nips in with the long blades. A thick swath drifts to the ground, where it is dragged over the brick courtyard by a gust of wind.

By the time Ted has finished with her, Jolene's pride and joy winds around the bushes, the table legs, and our shoes in a vast golden spider web. Jolene slouches on the stool with her arms crossed tightly over her chest, her pale face naked to the sun, her eyes closed. Her hair has been reduced to a jagged butch cut that's blonde at the tips and black underneath, her natural color. She looks like a punk rock star; all she needs is a safety pin in her ear.

Ted prays aloud for God to help her accept this punishment and humble herself, and we echo his "Amen" in a mumbled chorus before he dismisses us for class.

On Sunday afternoon, I stand before Bruce to recite Bible verses, then prostrate myself before him to do leg lifts and push-ups and suicides. The house votes to approve my promotion to First Level, and suddenly I can move without asking and use the bathroom without an audience. And these simple freedoms — which just two weeks ago were as natural to me as breathing air — fill me with awe, and I circle the house several times, marveling at the ease of it all.

Bruce pins a silver-colored medal on my T-shirt that says "Achievement" and tells me I'm now entitled to use one makeup item and one accessory. He returns my safari hat, and I smile and thank him before walking into the kitchen to spit on it and stuff it deep into the garbage can.

Two more weeks of this playacting, and they'll let me talk to David.

First Level also means I can read a letter Scott sent a week ago. I carry it around for days, savoring the anticipation of opening it.

The staff have already scrutinized the letter and taped it back into its envelope, but I don't care. A letter is proof that I once lived in the real world beyond the barbed wire fence, and the real world has not forgotten me.

Between classes, I take Scott's letter out of my backpack and trace his cramped handwriting with a fingertip, imagining his fingers gripping the blue pen that scrawled my name. His tongue licking the back flap. His calloused palm smoothing it shut, the same calloused palm that skimmed my back as we laid in bed after sex. At night, I sniff it for traces of his musk and sleep with it under my pillow.

On a Friday evening, I sit on the patio during Free Time to open it while everyone else plays Scrabble at the long wood table and Sandi Patti wails on the house cassette player. The small speakers make her voice all the more annoying. Thank God that batteries are hard to come by in the Third World, so we're restricted to only one hour of Jesus music a night.

I peel the tape off the envelope and pull out the letter. Black marker blots out half the words. Jerks. I wonder how much of my letters to David were crossed out as well. Now I now understand why he couldn't warn me about this place – Bruce and Becky check our letters home for "negativity" and "lies" about The Program, and if they find a hint of nonconformity, they dock our points and make us rewrite them. I quickly learned not to refer to Escuela Caribe as a concentration camp after scoring a 1 in the School – Attitude box. Our parents must continue paying our tuition, The Program must go on.

I read Scott's letter in the gaslight as the evening breeze tugs at the corners of the page.

Dear Julia,

My love, it's only been a few days since you've left but it feels like an eternity.

After you got on the plane, I had some "words" with the bitch and bastard. I told your dad he was a █████ and a █████ , and if he wanted to █████ , then █████ .'Course your mom pulled him away, and that was that. Reckon they didn't want a scandal to ruin the good doctor's name.

Since you've gone, I've scarcely moved from my room. I don't have the energy to do anything. When the boys came round the other day to see if I was up for shooting squirrels I told them no, I'd rather just █████ .

I can't stop thinking about you, about how they separated us like this. Even as I write this, my hands are shaking. I want to be with you and ███ so bad it hurts. I miss your ███ and the way your ████ when we █████ . But it's not just █████ , it's you, and the way you are good to me in ways no one understands.

I've never felt this way before, this pain is the first I've suffered purely from emotional problems. You are my first, last, and only love. When this is all over I want you to come back to me and be mine. And if you want, I will marry you.

Yours 4 Ever,


I reread the last sentence and snicker. Scott's always good at saying what he thinks people want to hear; he likes to be liked. But in this case, he's wrong. I don't want to get married. I like boys well enough, but I don't need a husband bossing me around after being bossed around by everyone else all my life. I just want to be left alone.