A Different Truth by Annette Oppenlander
April 15, 2015
Grey Wolfe Publishing
April 15, 2015
Grey Wolfe Publishing
In 1968, with the Vietnam War at its bloodiest, sixteen-year old Andy Olson is banished to Palmer Military Academy. Along with his best friend, Tom, he is plunged into a world where rules are everything and disobedience not an option. Andy doesn't care about politics and grows increasingly irritated when Tom openly supports the peace movement. Contradicting the establishment and provoking their bullying classmates is dangerous. But when Tom is attacked and the school calls it an unfortunate accident, Andy makes a choice that not only threatens his future but his very life.
They came for me in the night, evil shadows that chased away my dream.
The voice, cold and demanding, makes me open my eyes. Only I can’t see a thing because in that instant the beam of a flashlight hits my face. Before my fuzzy brain can figure out what to do I’m yanked out of bed. I shiver, less from the cold, but from the uneasy feeling that’s creeping up my spine.
Hushed sounds like suppressed grunts filter into the room, though the corridor beyond is plunged into darkness. Heavy boots stomp around me. I search for a familiar face, someone I recognize, but the harsh light remains glued to my eyeballs. I’m about to shout, demand an explanation when they force back my arms and my shoulder blades begin to throb.
“Move.” The speaker’s voice sounds deliberately deeper, a bad actor’s attempt to disguise his identity.
My head and question disappear under a hood. I spit to keep the fabric from entering my mouth. It smells rancid as if someone has wiped their armpits with it. Gagging, I open my eyes wider… nothing. I’m blind. My chest heaves as I suck hard to find enough oxygen under the cloth, and resist the dizziness that wants to engulf me. I’m scrambling to think of what to do, when a shove sends me staggering forward into the hall. Too late.
The last cobwebs of sleep evaporate as I notice mumbling, suppressed groans and staggering feet. There are others like me. Someone squeezes my wrists and pushes me onward at the same time. It’s like a bad movie scene, except I’m in it. Suddenly I’m fuming mad, a burning in my stomach that works its way up to my throat. And there is a flicker of something else—fear.
“Walk!” comes the order from farther away. I twist my hands, but the iron grip holds. My body feels clumsy in the darkness. Now my wrists are being tied. Fingers made of steel clamp down on my biceps and guide me around a corner. I’m trapped.
I try remembering if I missed an announcement, something that would explain this bullshit. Nothing comes to mind. All I can think of is my heart pounding in my neck and the stinky cloth on my face.
“Stairs,” someone hisses.
I step down, feel the momentary void before my foot hits the next tread. The cover shifts and I can see my toes. Somehow it feels comforting. This whole thing reminds me of Boy Scouts when they led me into the forest to make a fire and find my way back. Except this—whatever this is—seems really hostile. The voice of dread inside me whispers louder.
Somewhere ahead a door bangs. We must be going outside. A moment later I feel gravel under my bare feet, shooting darts of pain up my calves. I stub my big toe and suppress a groan. I’m not the only once because cries and grunts erupt all around me. I’m confused and clueless, getting angrier by the second. I want to smack these guys in their fat noses.
We keep walking, turning corners until I lose all sense of direction. Since my arrival at the academy two weeks ago, I’ve learned to march everywhere. I was sort of proud of knowing my way around so quickly. Until now, when the stuffy blackness in front of my eyes is playing tricks as if my head is stuck in a barrel of ink. How long have we been out here? Palmer’s campus spreads across hundreds of acres. I imagine being hauled into the woods and left to find my way back. Somehow that seems too easy.
By the time I’m yanked to a stop, my mouth is dry with a mix of panic and rage. Straining my ears I hear nothing but muffled whispers, impossible to understand or identify. Hundreds of cadets live here and I’ve got trouble just remembering the guys on my floor, Barracks B, one of six dorms. Not to mention the battalion and company officers who all look the same with their buzz cuts and uniforms. What a bunch of jerks. The voice of warning nags louder.
An arm wraps around my throat and forces me to the ground, followed by a blow to my stomach. Lights explode behind my eyelids. Struggling to breathe, I ignore the stinging in my ribs. I’m used to getting beat up in football, but this is cheap. This isn’t a fight, it’s slaughter.
Anger constricts my throat and makes it even harder to get air. Damn hood. Another punch lands, higher this time into the chest. Are they going to kill me? I didn’t ask to come to this stupid school in the first place. What if I pretend to pass out? But how would they know with your face covered up, the voice in my head gripes. They’ll simply pound you to mincemeat, conscious or not.
I’ve got only one choice, to stay calm and look for an opening. My fingers constrict as I receive another jab. More throbbing joins the angry burn in my gut. Think, I order myself. Concentrate. The cries around me are distracting. So is my aching body. I wait for another strike, but nothing happens. For a moment I feel suspended like I’m floating. It’s worse than the attack because now I hear the thump-thump of other guys being pummeled.
I manage to roll on my side and yank on my ropes. One hand comes free. I rip away the hood and gulp air. Better, though it’s still too dark to see anything.
The knock to my stomach comes out of nowhere. I pull up my thighs to protect my belly, watching the shadows that move like liquid smoke. Cries mix with the sound of punches as the attackers hover above their prey. The air boils with agony.
I’m on fire now, a volcano ready to blow. The chicken shit closest to me looks like he’s taking aim. Instead of turning away to shield myself, I jolt forward and wrap a foot around his ankle. Then I yank. The scumbag grunts and collapses to the side. When I roll to my knees everything turns red. I punch in rapid succession until the guy quits moving. One down.
Ignoring my churning gut, I stand up. The fighting around me continues, flashlights dance, illuminating bits and pieces of an eerie battle. I’ve got to get away, hide some place. I’m not bad running sprints, but they outnumber me and my feet are raw. Maybe it’s best to stay low and crawl off into the darkness.
By the time I notice the shadow sneaking up behind me it’s too late. A kick to my knees sends me flying. Landing on my side, I want to spit with disgust. What worms. The scumbag I’ve hooked earlier sits up and holds his middle. Serves him right. I swing a fist, but the blow lands on the other mugger’s thigh which is hard and smooth as a medicine ball. It’s the last punch I manage before my arms are forced down, and somebody sits on my legs. No matter how I writhe and kick, my attackers stay out of reach. I feel like a turtle lying on its back. More blows pelt me until a whistle sounds. Like ghosts, the thugs vanish.
I lie unmoving. My feet ache, my middle cramps and my head pounds in unison with my heart. Above me the moon cuts a thin crescent into the sky, the stars cold and distant—indifferent. I’m alone. A lump appears in my throat and I swallow it away. I didn’t cry when my parents dropped me off and I’m sure as hell not going to cry now. I don’t notice the dampness until I begin to tremble. My back has turned to ice. When I straighten to stand, my stomach twists as if I’ve eaten rocks and I slump back on my knees.
Somewhere to my right I hear moans, soft cries like suppressed weeping. I inch toward the sound. The sliver of moon makes it hard to see who is lying there. Some still wear blindfolds and have their hands bound. I grope in the dark to untie them and pull off their hoods. I recognize one of them by his high voice. Markus Webber, a freshman who lives in the room next to me. Markus is fourteen and looks twelve. He’s crying. New fury bubbles inside me. Lousy rotten cowards, beating up a mere kid.
At least I’m sixteen, I think grudgingly. Not that it does any good. Like Markus I’m a plebe, a new cadet at the beginning of my ‘career’, that’s what my dad calls it, at Palmer Military Academy. I’m scum. Dirt under the oldmens’ shoes, fair game to be yelled at and made to service my superiors until I’ve learned the rules. I’ll pay my dues for an entire year to graduate to oldman status and earn the right to torment the next generation of plebes. Who comes up with this stuff?
“You okay?” I ask, my voice strange to my ears.
Markus curls into a ball. “My stomach.”
I crawl closer and grab his arm. “Better get up. You’ll freeze.”
Markus wipes his face and shifts onto his knees. “Thanks, man.”
Around me boys stumble to their feet. When I hear another groan, I make my way toward the noise. It sounds familiar.
Something hard hits my knee. The flashlight fires a sharp beam across the lawn as I grab it. Tom is lying on his back, his knees bent and sticking up like two extra-long twigs. I yank away the hood and untie his hands.
“Shitheads,” Tom grumbles. “Nothing like a warm-welcome hazing in the second week.”
We met the first day. Tom stood near the entrance to our dorm, looking out of place like a mismatched shoe. He’s tall and skinny with black hair and brown eyes that zoom into your face not missing a thing. I liked him immediately.
I plop down to inventory my pajamas. “Did you recognize anyone?”
My pants are wet and stained with blood and grass. Several buttons are missing from my shirt and the right sleeve and arm stick to my skin. My mother’s stern voice echoes through my head, “Andrew, be careful with your clothes, everything costs money.” Andrew, that’s me, though everyone but my mom calls me Andy. At the time I swallowed the comment of why they were sending me to this posh school, if it was so expensive.
Supposedly it’s to help me study, but there is something else. Something they haven’t expressed in words. I know they’re unhappy about my grades and resent my rebellion. I draw a rattled breath.
Tom stares at me. “You okay? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Nothing.” I try a smile though I can tell Tom isn’t buying it. “Looks like they got you pretty good.”
“Couldn’t get the stupid hood off.”
“They had to be oldmen. Some were definitely from the football team, too damn strong. I mean I punched this guy in the thigh and it felt like cement. Who has legs like that?”
“I guess you’d know best, playing with them every day,” Tom says with a crooked grin. “Let’s go, my arms are turning to icicles.”
I scan the three-story building, its windows like black eye patches. The flashlight beam fades somewhere along the second floor.
“We’re behind the faculty dorms. I bet they know.” Most of the single teachers live here while professors and military personnel with families stay in houses near campus. The building is strictly off limits, though I don’t have the faintest idea why anyone would want to step inside.
“Probably happens every year,” Tom says.
“Did you notice they avoided our faces? Not to leave marks you’d see tomorrow.” I rub my chest as if I can rid myself of the soreness.
“Might hurt their precious reputation if someone from the outside found out,” Tom says. “On second thought, my father would probably thank these wackos for teaching me a lesson.” His voice drops into a jeer. “The school trains young men in discipline, how to protect the country. None of that peace-loving hippie bullshit.” Tom’s voice returns to normal. “I think he even believes it himself.”
“How is being beaten by cowards teaching anything? Cocksuckers.” It comes out much louder than intended and I hear a few giggles behind me. I grin despite the soreness. It’s forbidden to curse. Most everything is forbidden, certainly the things I’ve enjoyed doing before I got here. I grimace. At least one guy has a stomach ache right now.
“Wonder if we’ll figure out who did this,” I say aloud.
The cheerfully bright entrance of our barracks appears, its hallways deserted. I push away the thought of what other surprises await us, like how I’ll make it through two entire years. Tom holds open the door, his face tweaked into a sarcastic grin despite the bruise swelling on his collarbone. I grin back. At least I’ve got a friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHORAnnette Oppenlander writes historical fiction for young adults. When she isn’t in front of her computer, she loves indulging her mutt, Mocha, and traveling around the U.S. and Europe to discover amazing histories. “Nearly every place holds some kind of secret, something that makes history come alive. When we scrutinize people and places closely, history is no longer a number, it turns into a story.” For more information visit Annette Oppenlander's website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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