The River King
From the best-selling author of The Dovekeepers, The River King confirms Alice Hoffman as "one of our quirkiest and most interesting novelists" (Jane Smiley, USA Today).
People tend to stay in their place in the town of Haddan. The students at the prestigious prep school don't mix with locals; even within the school, hierarchy rules, as freshman and faculty members find out where they fit in and what is expected of them. But when a body is found in the river behind the school, a local policeman will walk into this enclosed world and upset it entirely. A story of surface appearances and the truths submerged below.
The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.
For weeks, students were ferried to classes in rowboats; catfish swam through flooded perennial gardens, observing the disaster with cool, glassy eyes. Every evening, at twilight, the school cook balanced on a second-story window ledge, then cast out his rod to catch dozens of silver trout, a species found only in the currents of the Haddan River, a sweet, fleshy variety that was especially delectable when fried with shallots and oil. After the flood subsided, two inches of thick, black silt covered the carpets in the dormitories; at the headmaster’s house, mosquitoes began to hatch in sinks and commodes. The delightful watery vistas of the site, a landscape abundant with willows and water lotus, had seduced the foolish trustees into building much too close to the river, an architectural mistake that has never been rectified. To this day, frogs can be found in the plumbing; linens and clothes stored in closets have a distinctly weedy odor, as if each article had been washed in river water and never thoroughly dried.
After the flood, houses in town had to be refloored and re-roofed; public buildings were torn down, then refashioned from cellar to ceiling. Whole chimneys floated down Main Street, with some of them still issuing forth smoke. Main Street itself had become a river, with waters more than six feet deep. Iron fences were loosened and ripped from the earth, leaving metal posts in the shape of arrows adrift. Horses drowned; mules floated for miles and when rescued, refused to eat anything but wild celery and duckweed. Poison sumac was uprooted and deposited in vegetable bins, only to be mistakenly cooked along with the carrots and cabbages, a recipe that led to several untimely deaths. Bobcats showed up on back porches, mewing and desperate for milk; several were found beside babies in their cradles, sucking from bottles and purring as though they were house cats let in through front doors.
At that time, the rich fields circling the town of Haddan were owned by prosperous farmers who cultivated asparagus and onions and a peculiar type of yellow cabbage known for its large size and delicate fragrance. These farmers put aside their plows and watched as boys arrived from every corner of the Commonwealth and beyond to take up residence at the school, but even the wealthiest among them were unable to afford tuition for their own sons. Local boys had to make do with the dusty stacks at the library on Main Street and whatever fundamentals they might learn in their very own parlors and fields. To this day, people in Haddan retain a rustic knowledge of which they are proud. Even the children can foretell the weather; they can point to and name every constellation in the sky.
A dozen years after the Haddan School was built, a public high school was erected in the neighboring town of Hamilton, which meant a five-mile trek to classes on days when the snow was knee-deep and the weather so cold even the badgers kept to their dens. Each time a Haddan boy walked through a storm to the public school his animosity toward the Haddan School grew, a small bump on the skin of ill will ready to rupture at the slightest contact. In this way a hard bitterness was forged, and the spiteful sentiment increased every year, until there might as well have been a fence dividing those who came from the school and the residents of the village. Before long, anyone who dared to cross that line was judged to be either a martyr or a fool.
There was a time when it seemed possible for the separate worlds to be united, when Dr. George Howe, the esteemed headmaster, considered to be the finest in the Haddan School history, decided to marry Annie Jordan, the most beautiful girl in the village. Annie’s father was a well-respected man who owned a parcel of farmland out where Route 17 now runs into the interstate, and he approved of the marriage, but soon after the wedding it became apparent that Haddan would remain divided. Dr. Howe was jealous and vindictive; he turned local people away from his door. Even Annie’s family was quickly dispatched. Her father and brothers, good, simple men with mud on their boots, were struck mute the few times they came to call, as if the bone china and leather-bound books had robbed them of their tongues. Before long people in town came to resent Annie, as if she’d somehow betrayed them. If she thought she was so high and mighty, in that fine house by the river, then the girls she grew up with felt they had reason to retaliate, and on the streets they passed her by without a word. Even her own dog, a lazy hound named Sugar, ran away yelping on those rare occasions when Annie came to visit her father’s farm.
It quickly became clear that the marriage had been a horrid mistake; anyone more worldly than Annie would have known this from the start. At his very own wedding, Dr. Howe had forgotten his hat, always the sign of a man who’s bound to stray. He was the sort of person who wished to own his wife, without belonging to her in return. There were days when he spoke barely a sentence in his own home, and nights when he didn’t come in until dawn. It was loneliness that led Annie to begin her work in the gardens at Haddan, which until her arrival were neglected, ruined patches filled with ivy and nightshade, dark vines that choked out any wildflowers that might have grown in the thin soil. As it turned out, Annie’s loneliness was the school’s good fortune, for it was she who designed the brick walkways that form an hourglass and who, with the help of six strong boys, saw to the planting of the weeping beeches beneath whose branches many girls still receive their first kiss. Annie brought the original pair of swans to reside at the bend in the river behind the headmaster’s house, ill-tempered, wretched specimens rescued from a farmer in Hamilton whose wife plucked their bloody feathers for soft, plump quilts. Each evening, before supper, when the light above the river washed the air with a green haze, Annie went out with an apronful of old bread. She held the firm belief that scattering bread crumbs brought happiness, a condition she herself had not known since her wedding day.
There are those who vow that swans are unlucky, and fishermen in particular despise them, but Annie loved her pets; she could call them to her with a single cry. At the sound of her sweet voice the birds lined up as politely as gentlemen; they ate from her hands without ever once drawing blood, favoring crusts of rye bread and whole-wheat crackers. As a special treat, Annie often brought whole pies, leftovers from the dining room. In a wicker basket, she piled up apple cobbler and wild raspberry tart, which the swans gobbled down nearly whole, so that their beaks were stained crimson and their bellies took on the shapes of medicine balls.
Even those who were certain Dr. Howe had made a serious error in judgment in choosing his bride had to admire Annie’s gardens. In no time the perennial borders were thick with rosy-pink foxglove and cream-colored lilies, each of which hung like a pendant, collecting dew on its satiny petals. But it was with her roses that Annie had the best luck of all, and among the more jealous members of the Haddan garden club, founded that very year in an attempt to beautify the town, there was speculation that such good fortune was unnatural. Some people went so far as to suggest that Annie Howe sprinkled the pulverized bones of cats around the roots of her ramblers, or perhaps it was her own blood she cast about the shrubs. How else could her garden bloom in February, when all other yards were nothing more than stonewort and bare dirt? Massachusetts was known for a short growing season and its early killing frosts. Nowhere could a gardener find more unpredictable weather, be it droughts or floods or infestations of beetles, which had been known to devour entire neighborhoods full of greenery. None of these plagues ever affected Annie Howe. Under her care, even the most delicate hybrids lasted past the first frost so that in November there were still roses blooming at Haddan, although by then, the edge of each petal was often encased in a layer of ice.
Much of Annie Howe’s handiwork was destroyed the year she died, yet a few samples of the hardiest varieties remain. A visitor to campus can find sweet, aromatic Prosperity, as well as Climbing Ophelia and those delicious Egyptian Roses, which give off the scent of cloves on rainy days, ensuring that a gardener’s hands will smell sweet for hours after pruning the canes. Among all of these roses, Mrs. Howe’s prized white Polars were surely her finest. Cascades of white flowers lay dormant for a decade, to bloom and envelop the metal trellis beside the girls’ dormitory only once every ten years, as if all that time was needed to restore the roses their strength. Each September, when the new students arrived, Annie Howe’s roses had an odd effect on certain girls, the sensitive ones who had never been away from home before and were easily influenced. When such girls walked past the brittle canes in the gardens behind St. Anne’s, they felt something cold at the base of their spines, a bad case of pins and needles, as though someone were issuing a warning: Be careful who you choose to love and who loves you in return.
Most newcomers are apprised of Annie’s fate as soon as they come to Haddan. Before suitcases are unpacked and classes are chosen, they know that although the huge wedding cake of a house that serves as the girls’ dormitory is officially called Hastings House—in honor of some fellow, long forgotten, whose dull-witted daughter’s admission opened the door for female students on the strength of a huge donation—the dormitory is never referred to by that name. Among students, the house is called St. Anne’s, in honor of Annie Howe, who hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before wild iris began to appear in the woods. There will always be girls who refuse to go up to the attic at St. Anne’s after hearing this story, and others, whether in search of spiritual renewal or quick thrills, who are bound to ask if they can take up residence in the room where Annie ended her life. On days when rosewater preserves are served at breakfast, with Annie’s recipe carefully followed by the kitchen staff, even the most fearless girls can become light-headed; after spooning this concoction onto their toast they need to sit with their heads between their knees and breathe deeply until their metabolisms grow steady again.
At the start of the term, when members of the faculty return to school, they are reminded not to grade on a curve and not to repeat Annie’s story. It is exactly such nonsense that gives rise to inflated grade averages and nervous breakdowns, neither of which are approved of by the Haddan School. Nevertheless, the story always slips out, and there’s nothing the administration can do to stop it. The particulars of Annie’s life are simply common knowledge among the students, as much an established part of Haddan life as the route of the warblers who always begin their migration at this time of year, lighting on shrubbery and treetops, calling to one another across the open sky.
Often, the weather is unseasonably warm at the start of the term, one last triumph of summer come to call. Roses bloom more abundantly, crickets chirp wildly, flies doze on windowsills, drowsy with sunlight and heat. Even the most serious-minded educators are known to fall asleep when Dr. Jones gives his welcoming speech. This year, many in attendance drifted off in the overheated library during this oration and several teachers secretly wished that the students would never arrive. Outside, the September air was enticingly fragrant, yellow with pollen and rich, lemony sunlight. Along the river, near the canoe shed, weeping willows rustled and dropped catkins on the muddy ground. The clear sound of slow-moving water could be heard even here in the library, perhaps because the building itself had been fashioned out of river rock, gray slabs flecked with mica that had been hauled from the banks by local boys hired for a dollar a day, laborers whose hands bled from their efforts and who cursed the Haddan School forever after, even in their sleep.
As usual, people were far more curious about those who’d been recently hired than those old, reliable colleagues they already knew. In every small community, the unknown is always most intriguing, and Haddan was no exception to this rule. Most people had been to dinner with Bob Thomas, the massive dean of students, and his pretty wife, Meg, more times than they could count; they had sat at the bar at the Haddan Inn with Duck Johnson, who coached crew and soccer and always became tearful after his third beer. The on-again, off-again romance between Lynn Vining, who taught painting, and Jack Short, the married chemistry teacher, had already been discussed and dissected. Their relationship was completely predictable, as were many of the love affairs begun at Haddan—fumbling in the teachers’ lounge, furtive embraces in idling cars, kisses exchanged in the library, breakups at the end of the term. Feuds were far more interesting, as in the case of Eric Herman—ancient history—and Helen Davis—American history and chair of the department, a woman who’d been teaching at Haddan for more than fifty years and was said to grow meaner with each passing day, as if she were a pitcher of milk set out to curdle in the noonday sun.
Despite the heat and Dr. Jones’s dull lecture, the same speech he trotted out every year, despite the droning of bees beyond the open windows, where a hedge of twiggy China roses still grew, people took notice of the new photography instructor, Betsy Chase. It was possible to tell at a glance that Betsy would be the subject of even more gossip than any ongoing feud. It wasn’t only Betsy’s fevered expression that drew stares, or her high cheekbones and dark, unpredictable hair. People couldn’t quite believe how inappropriate her attire was. There she was, a good-looking woman who apparently had no common sense, wearing old black slacks and a faded black T-shirt, the sort of grungy outfit barely tolerated on Haddan students, let alone on members of the faculty. On her feet were plastic flip-flops of the dime-store variety, cheap little items that announced every step with a slap. She actually had a wad of gum in her mouth, and soon enough blew a bubble when she thought no one was looking; even those in the last row of the library could hear the sugary pop. Dennis Hardy, geometry, who sat directly behind her, told people afterward that Betsy gave off the scent of vanilla, a tincture she used to dispel the odor of darkroom chemicals from her skin, a concoction so reminiscent of baked goods that people who met her often had an urge for oatmeal cookies or angel food cake.
It had been only eight months since Betsy had been hired to take the yearbook photos. She had disliked the school at first sight, and had written it off as too prissy, too picture perfect. When Eric Herman asked her out she’d been surprised by the offer, and wary as well. She’d already had more than her share of botched relationships, yet she’d agreed to have dinner with Eric, ever hopeful despite the statistics that promised her an abject and lonely old age. Eric was so much sturdier than the men she was used to, all those brooders and artists who couldn’t be depended upon to show up at the door on time let alone have the foresight to plan a retirement fund. Before Betsy knew what had happened she was accepting an offer of marriage and applying for a job in the art department. The Willow Room at the Haddan Inn was already reserved for their reception in June, and Bob Thomas, the dean of students, had guaranteed them one of the coveted faculty cottages as soon as they were wed. Until that time, Betsy would be a houseparent at St. Anne’s and Eric would continue on as senior proctor at Chalk House, a boys’ dormitory set so close to the river that the dreadful Haddan swans often nested on the back porch, nipping at passersby’s pant legs until chased away with a broom.
For the past month, Betsy had been simultaneously planning both her classes at Haddan and her wedding. Perfectly rational activities, and yet she often felt certain she had blundered into an alternate universe, one to which she clearly did not belong. Today, for instance, the other women present in the auditorium were all in dresses, the men in summer suits and ties, and there was Betsy in her T-shirt and slacks, making what was sure to be the first of an endless series of social miscalculations. She had bad judgment, there was no way around it; from childhood on, she had jumped into things headfirst, without looking to see if there was a net to break her fall. Of course, no one had bothered to inform her that Dr. Jones’s addresses were such formal events; everyone said he was ancient and ailing and that Bob Thomas was the real man in charge. Hoping to erase her fashion blunder, Betsy now searched through her backpack for some lipstick and a pair of earrings, for all the good they would do.
Taking up residence in a small town had indeed left Betsy disoriented. She was used to city living, to potholes and purse snatchers, parking tickets and double locks. Whether it be morning, noon, or night, she simply couldn’t get her bearings here in Haddan. She’d set out for the pharmacy on Main Street or to Selena’s Sandwich Shoppe on the corner of Pine and arrive at the town cemetery in the field behind town hall. She’d start for the market, in search of a loaf of bread or some muffins, only to find that she’d strayed onto the twisting back roads leading to Sixth Commandment Pond, a deep pool at a bend in the river where horsetails and wild celery grew. Once she’d wandered off, it would often be hours before she managed to find her way back to St. Anne’s. People in town had already become accustomed to a pretty, dark woman wandering about, asking for directions from schoolchildren and crossing guards, and yet still managing to take one wrong turn after another.
Although Betsy Chase was confused, the town of Haddan hadn’t changed much in the last fifty years. The village itself was three blocks long, and, for some residents, contained the whole world. Along with Selena’s Sandwich Shoppe, which served breakfast all day, there was a pharmacy at whose soda fountain the best raspberry lime rickeys in the Commonwealth could be had, as well as a hardware store that offered everything from nails to velveteen. One could also find a shoe store, the 5&10 Cent Bank, and the Lucky Day Florist, known for its scented garlands and wreaths. There was St. Agatha’s, with its granite facade, and the public library, with its stained-glass windows, the first to be built in the county. Town hall, which had burned down twice, had finally been rebuilt with mortar and stone, and was said to be indestructible, although the statue of the eagle out front was tipped from its pedestal by local boys year after year.
All along Main Street, there were large white houses, set back from the road, whose wide lawns were ringed with black iron fences punctuated by little spikes on top; pretty, architectural warnings that made it quite clear the grass and rhododendrons within were private property. On the approach to town, the white houses grew larger, as though a set of stacking toys had been fashioned from clapboards and brick. On the far side of town was the train station, and opposite stood a gas station and mini-mart, along with the dry cleaner’s and a new supermarket. In fact, the town was sliced in two, separated by Main into an east and a west side. Those who lived on the east side resided in the white houses; those who worked at the counter at Selena’s or ran the ticket booth at the train station lived in the western part of town.
Beyond Main Street the village became sparser, fanning out into new housing developments and then into farmland. On Evergreen Avenue was the elementary school, and if a person followed Evergreen due east, in the direction of Route 17, he’d come to the police station. Farther north, at the town line that separated Haddan from Hamilton, deposited in a no-man’s-land neither village cared to claim, was a bar called the Millstone, which offered live bands on Friday nights along with five brands of beer on tap and heated arguments in the parking lot on humid summer nights. There had probably been half a dozen divorces that had reached a fevered pitch in that very parking lot and so many alcohol-induced fights had taken place in those confines that if anyone bothered to search through the laurel bordering the asphalt he’d surely find handfuls of teeth that were said to give the laurel its odd milky color, ivory with a pale pink edge, with each blossom forming the shape of a bitter man’s mouth.
Beyond town, there were still acres of fields and a crisscross of dirt roads where Betsy had gotten lost one afternoon before the start of the term, late in the day, when the sky was cobalt and the air was sweet with the scent of hay. She’d been searching for a vegetable stand Lynn Vining in the art department had told her sold the best cabbages and potatoes, when she happened upon a huge meadow, all blue with everlasting and tansy. Betsy had gotten out of the car with tears in her eyes. She was only three miles from Route 17, but she might as well have been on the moon. She was lost and she knew it, with no sense whatsoever of how she had managed to wind up in Haddan, engaged to a man she barely knew.
She might have been lost to this day if she hadn’t thought to follow a newspaper delivery truck into the neighboring town of Hamilton, a true metropolis compared to Haddan, with a hospital and a high school and even a multiplex cinema. From Hamilton, Betsy drove south to the highway, then circled back to the village via Route 17. Still, for some time afterward, she’d been unable to forget how lost she’d become. Even when she was beside Eric in bed all she had to do was close her eyes and she’d continue to see those wildflowers in the meadow, each and every one the exact color of the sky.
When all was said and done, what was so wrong with Haddan? It was a lovely town, featured in several guidebooks, cited for both its excellent trout fishing and the exceptional show of fall colors that graced the landscape every October. If Betsy continually lost her way on the streets of such a neat, orderly village, perhaps it was the pale green light rising from the river each evening that led her astray. Betsy had taken to carrying a map and a flashlight in her pocket, hopefully ready for any emergency. She made certain to keep to the well-worn paths, where the old roses grew, but even the rosebushes were disturbing when they were encountered in the dark. The twisted black vines were concealed in the black night, thorns hidden deep within the dried canes until a passerby had already come close enough to cut herself unwittingly.
In spite of the police log in the Tribune, which reported crimes no more heinous than jaywalking across Main Street or trash bags of leaves set out on the curb on Tuesdays when yard waste would not be collected until the second Friday of the month, Betsy did not feel safe in Haddan. It seemed entirely possible that in a town such as this, a person might walk along the riverbank one bright afternoon and simply disappear, swallowed up in a tangle of chokeberry and woodbine. Beyond the river there were acres thick with maple and pine, and the woods loomed darkly at night, flecked with the last of the season’s fireflies.
Even as a girl, Betsy had hated the countryside. She’d been a difficult child; she had whined and stomped her feet, refusing to accompany her parents on a picnic, and because of her ill-tempered ways, she’d been spared. That day, there were seven separate fatalities due to lightning. Ball lightning had ignited fence posts and oak trees, before chasing people across meadows and fields. There had been several sightings of rocket lightning, which burst from cloud to ground in seconds flat with a display not unlike fireworks exploding in a deadly white flash. Instead of taking her place in the meadow with her parents, lying beside them in the burning grass, Betsy had been sprawled upon the couch, leafing through a magazine and sipping a tall glass of pink lemonade. She’d often imagined how the course of events might have altered if only she’d accompanied her hapless parents. They might have run for their lives instead of being caught unawares, too puzzled and stupefied to move. They might have followed Betsy’s lead and been wise enough to crouch behind a flinty stone wall, which would have turned so burning hot when it took the strike intended for them that for months afterward it would have been possible to fry eggs on the hottest of the stones. Ever since, Betsy had possessed a survivor’s guilt and was often in search of punishment. She raced red lights and drove with the gas gauge on empty. She walked city streets after midnight and gravitated outside on stormy days without the benefit of a raincoat or an umbrella, long ago deciding to ignore any Samaritans who warned that such foolhardy behavior would only ensure that sooner or later she’d wind up electrified, ignited from her fingers to her toes.
Before meeting Eric, Betsy had been careening through her life with nothing much to show other than sheaves of photographs, a black-and-white diary of landscapes and portraits stuffed into files and folios. A good photographer was meant to be an observer, a silent party there to record, but somewhere along the line Betsy had become a bystander to her own existence. Just ignore me, she would say to her subjects. Pretend I’m not here and go about your normal routine. All the while she’d been doing this, her own life had somehow escaped her; she herself had no routine, normal or otherwise. When she’d come to Haddan, she’d been at a low point. Too many men had disappointed her, friends weren’t there for her, apartments had been broken into while she was asleep. She certainly hadn’t expected any changes in her life on the day she came to take the yearbook photos at Haddan, and perhaps there wouldn’t have been any if she hadn’t overheard one student ask another, Why did the chicken leave the Haddan School? Curious, she’d eavesdropped, and when she’d heard the answer—Because he had an aversion to bullshit—Betsy laughed so loudly that the swans on the river startled and took flight, skimming over the water and raising clouds of mayflies.
Eric Herman had turned to see her just at the moment when her grin was its widest. He watched her arrange the soccer team in size order and then, in what he assured her afterward was the first impulsive action of his life, he had walked right up to her and asked her to dinner, not the next night or the one after that, but right then, so that neither one had time to reconsider.
Eric was the sort of attractive, confident man who drew people to him without trying, and Betsy wondered if perhaps she had simply happened to be in sight at the very moment he decided it was high time for him to marry. She still couldn’t fathom what he could possibly want with someone such as herself, a woman who would spill the entire contents of her backpack on the floor of a quiet auditorium just as she was attempting to stealthily extract a comb. There wasn’t a member of the Haddan faculty who didn’t hear the coins and ballpoint pens rolling down the aisle and who then felt completely validated in his or her initial opinion of Betsy. Long after Dr. Jones had completed his lecture, people were still collecting Betsy’s personal belongings from beneath their chairs, holding items up to the filtered light as though studying foreign and mysterious artifacts, when in fact all they’d gotten hold of was a notepad or a vial of sleeping pills or a tube of hand cream.
“Don’t worry,” Eric whispered to her. “Act naturally,” he advised, although acting naturally was exactly what always got her into trouble in the first place. If Betsy had trusted her instincts, as Eric suggested, she would surely have turned tail and run the first time she walked through the door of the girls’ dormitory where she was to be the junior houseparent. A chill had passed across her back as she stepped over the threshold, the cold hand of anxiety that often accompanies a bad decision. Betsy’s cramped set of rooms at the foot of the stairs was nothing less than awful. There was only one closet and the bathroom was so small it was impossible to exit the shower without jamming one’s knees into the sink. Paint was peeling from ceilings and the panes of old, bumpy glass in the windows allowed in drafts but not sunlight, turning even the palest rays a foggy green. In this setting, Betsy’s furniture looked mournful and out of place: the couch was too wide to fit through the narrow doorway, the easy chair appeared threadbare, the bureau would not stand on the sloping pine floors, and instead lurched like a drunkard each time a door was banged shut.
In her first week at Haddan, Betsy spent most of her nights at Eric’s apartment in Chalk House. It made sense to take the opportunity to do so now, for when the students arrived, they’d have to monitor their own behavior as well as that of their charges. And there was another reason Betsy had avoided sleeping at St. Anne’s. Each time she spent the night in her own quarters, she was wrenched from her slumber in a panic, with the sheets twisted around her and her thoughts so muddled it was as if she’d woken in the wrong bed and was now fated to lead someone else’s life. On the night before school was to begin, for instance, Betsy had slept at St. Anne’s only to dream she’d been lost in the fields outside Haddan. No matter how she might circle, she went no farther than the same parcels of uncultivated land. When she wrested herself from this dream, Betsy staggered out of bed, disoriented and smelling of hay. For an instant, she felt as though she were a girl again, left in someone’s strange, overheated apartment to fend for herself, which was exactly what had happened when friends of the family took her in after her parents’ accident.
Quickly, Betsy switched on the lights to discover that it was only a little after ten. There was a thumping coming from the direction of the stairs and the radiators were banging away, gushing out a steady stream of heat, even though the evening was unusually warm. No wonder Betsy couldn’t sleep; it was ninety degrees in her bedroom and the temperature was still rising. The orchid she had bought that afternoon at the Lucky Day Florist, a bloom accustomed to tropical climates, had already lost most of its petals; the slim, green stem had been warped by the heat and was now unable to hold up even the most delicate flower.
Betsy washed her face, found a stick of gum to ease her dry mouth, then pulled on her bathrobe and went to call on the senior houseparent. She assumed people at Haddan exaggerated when they called Helen Davis a selfish old witch, the fitting owner of an ugly black tomcat who was said to eat songbirds and roses. Clearly judgments were harsh at this school, for weren’t many people already calling Betsy a kook after the fiasco at the welcoming lecture? Wasn’t Eric referred to as Mr. Perfect by those who failed to measure up to his standards of excellence and forever after resented him? For her part, Betsy was the last to accept anyone else’s opinion, but when she knocked at Miss Davis’s door no one answered, even though there was clearly someone on the other side. Betsy could practically feel Miss Davis’s displeasure at being disturbed as the older woman peered through the peephole. Betsy knocked again, more forcefully now.
“Hello! Can you help me out? I just need some advice about my radiator.”
Helen Davis was tall and extremely imposing, even when answering the door in her nightgown and slippers. She carried herself in the manner women who were once beautiful often do; she was standoffish and confident in equal measure and she certainly did not feel the need to be civil when an unwanted visitor came calling at such a late hour.
“My radiators,” Betsy explained. Having come directly from bed, Betsy’s choppy hair was sticking straight up and her eyes were ringed with mascara. “They simply won’t turn off.”
“Do I look like a plumber?” Helen Davis’s smirk, as many of her students might confirm, was not a pleasant sight. Her disapproval could turn a person’s blood cold, and there had been several occasions when a tender freshman had fainted on the floor of her classroom when asked the simplest of questions. Miss Davis had never tolerated smart alecks nor the practice of chewing gum, nor did she invite guests into her private quarters.
The administration had failed to mention to Betsy that none of her predecessors had lasted more than a year. So she dove right in, asking for assistance when anyone else would have slunk away. “You must have experience in dealing with the heating system,” Betsy said. “Surely, it can’t be classified information.”
Miss Davis glared. “Are you chewing gum?” she asked sharply.
“Me?” Betsy immediately swallowed, but the gum clogged in her trachea. As she was doing her best not to choke, a horrible squalling creature ran by. Instinctively, Betsy drew herself against the wall to let it pass.
“Afraid of cats?” Miss Davis asked. Several junior houseparents who’d left claimed to be allergic to her pet. Although Betsy herself was not a fan of any sort of wildlife, cats included, she could tell that life at St. Anne’s would be bearable only if she won Helen Davis over to her side. Eric had often made fun of Miss Davis’s habit of quoting Ben Franklin whenever she wished to prove a point, and now Betsy used this information to her advantage.
“Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said the best dog of all is a cat?”
“Ben Franklin said nothing of the sort.” Still, Miss Davis knew when she was being flattered, and no one ever said flattery was a crime. “Wait in the hall and I’ll get you what you need,” she directed.
Standing in the dark, Betsy felt an odd elation, as though she’d just aced an exam or been named teacher’s pet. When Helen Davis returned, Betsy could see a slice of the apartment behind her; these quarters had remained constant for the past fifty years and included a collection of clutter that had surely taken that long to amass. In spite of the high-backed velvet love seat and a good rug from Afghanistan, the place was in serious disorder. Books were everywhere, along with half-filled teacups and forgotten crusts of sandwiches. There was the foul odor of old newspapers and cats. Helen swung the door closed behind her. She reached out and deposited a quarter in Betsy’s open hand.
“The secret is to bleed the radiators. Turn the screw at the rear with this quarter and be sure to keep a pan underneath to catch the drips. After the steam’s released, the radiator will cool down.”
Betsy thanked the senior houseparent, then with her typical ungainliness, she dropped the quarter and was forced to retrieve it. Seeing her from this angle, crawling about on hands and knees, Helen Davis at last realized that her caller was the same individual who had made a scene in the auditorium during Dr. Jones’s speech.
“You’re Eric Herman’s girlfriend,” Helen declared. “That’s who you are!”
“Hardly a girl.” Betsy laughed.
“Yes, hardly. Far too old to be taken in by him.”
“Oh, really?” Betsy stood, quarter in hand. Perhaps people were right about how nasty Helen Davis was. It was said she graded on a negative curve, deliberately failing as many students as possible, and that she had never once changed a grade, not even when self-mutilation or nervous breakdowns were threatened. The last houseparent to share duties with her at St. Anne’s had quit midterm to go to law school, reporting back that torts and constitutional law were a breeze after dealing with Helen Davis.
“Eric Herman is the most dishonest man I know. Just take a look at his ears. A man with small ears is always dishonorable and stingy. All the great men had large ears. Lincoln was said to move his at will, much like a rabbit.”
“Well, I like a man with small ears.” Regardless, Betsy made a mental note to take a closer look at Eric’s physiognomy.
“He’s after my job,” Helen Davis informed Betsy. “You might as well know right now, he’s a whiner and a complainer. A man like that will never be satisfied.”
“Oh, he’s satisfied, all right,” Betsy said, although she had already been privy to Eric’s many complaints about the history department. Helen Davis, he liked to joke, ought to be fired first, then guillotined, with her head displayed on one of the posts of those iron fences on Main Street. At least then the old woman would finally serve a purpose as she scared away crows rather than students. “He’s happy as a clam,” Betsy reported.
Miss Davis chortled at that. “Look at his ears, my dear, they tell the whole story.”
Betsy peered down the hallway; again there’d been a noise on the stairs. “What is that awful thudding sound?”
“It’s nothing.” Helen’s tone, which had been warming as she critiqued Eric, now turned sharp. “The hour’s a little late for these shenanigans, I might add.”
When Miss Davis closed her door, Betsy heard the lock click shut. At least Helen Davis had bestowed a quarter; no one else at Haddan had offered Betsy so much as a helping hand since she’d arrived. Even Eric had been so busy preparing for his classes that he’d been, it was true, stingy with his time. Still, he was a good man, and Betsy could hardly fault him for being as focused as he was dependable. Tonight was hardly the time to reassess her own opinions in light of Miss Davis’s observations, which were surely self-serving at best. It was most likely the emptiness of the dormitory that now set Betsy’s doubts to work, but there’d soon be a cure for that. By tomorrow, the hallways would be filled with girls and it would be Betsy’s job to soothe the homesick and shore up the meek and manage the wild as best she could. It would be her responsibility to make certain each and every one slept tight beneath this roof.
As Betsy returned to her apartment, she became aware of the scent of roses drifting down the stairway, richly fragrant in the overheated corridor. She found the odor in her own rooms, fainter yes, but disturbing enough so that she hurried to bleed the radiators, scalding her hands in the process. When she went back to bed she expected to toss and turn, but for once she slept deeply. In fact, she overslept, and needed to gulp down a quick cup of coffee in order to be ready for the first arrivals. It was then Betsy noticed the green vine outside her window. A few of Annie Howe’s prized white roses were still blooming; they were as big as cabbages, as white as snow. In the early morning sunlight, their innermost petals appeared to be a pale, pearly green. Betsy laughed at herself then; what a fool she’d been to be nervous last night. For every odd occurrence there was a rational explanation, or so she had always believed. She tidied up, then went to get dressed, comforted by the sight of the roses. But if she’d only paused long enough to open her window she would have discovered that Polar roses have no scent whatsoever. Even the bees avoid these creamy buds, preferring thistles and goldenrod instead. Take a scissors to the stems of these roses and they’ll fall apart at the touch. Try to pick one barehanded, and every thorn will draw blood.
The train to Haddan was always late, and this day was no exception. It was a spectacular afternoon, the fields rife with late-blooming asters and milkweed, the sky as wide and as clear as heaven. In the pine trees along the railroad tracks, hawks perched in the tallest branches; red-winged blackbirds swooped across the distance. Stands of oak and hawthorn made for pockets of dark woods where there were still plenty of deer, as well as an occasional moose that had wandered down from New Hampshire or Maine. As the train passed slowly through the neighboring town of Hamilton, several boys ran alongside the cars; some waved cheerfully to the passengers on board, while others rudely stuck out their tongues and pulled their faces into freckled smirks, the grimaces of wild angels unafraid of the gravel and dust that was always stirred up as the train rolled by.
Today, there were more than a dozen Haddan students on board, ready for the start of the term. Girls with long, shiny hair and boys in freshly pressed clothes that would soon be torn and stained in soccer games congregated in the club car. Their good-natured rowdiness drifted through the train when the conductor opened the doors, but the racket didn’t reach as far as the last car. There, in the farthest seat, a girl named Carlin Leander, who had never before left home, gazed out at the countryside, appreciating every haystack and fence that came briefly into sight as the train rolled on. Carlin had been planning to get out of Florida all her life. It had made no difference that she was the most beautiful girl in the county where she’d been born, with pale ashy hair and the same green eyes that had gotten her mother into trouble at the age of seventeen, pregnant and stranded in a town where a traveling carnival was considered a cultural event and any girl with a mind of her own was thought to be an aberration of nature’s plan.
Carlin Leander was nothing like her mother, and for that she was grateful. Not that Sue Leander wasn’t pleasant and warm, she certainly was. But to be agreeable and kindhearted was not Carlin’s goal. Whereas her mother was pliant and sweet, Carlin was obstinate and opinionated, the sort of girl who went barefoot in spite of all warnings to watch out for snakes. She never paid the least bit of attention to the boys who followed her home from school, many of them so moony and stupefied by her beauty that they rode their bikes into ditches and trees. Carlin was not about to get trapped, not in a locality where the heat continued to rise after midnight and the mosquitoes were a year-round annoyance and most folks chose to celebrate a girl’s weakness and ignore her strengths.
Some people were simply born in the wrong place. The first thing such individuals searched for was a map and the second was a ticket out. Carlin Leander had been ready to leave Florida since she could walk, and she’d finally managed her escape with a swimming scholarship to the Haddan School. Although her mother had been reluctant to let her go all the way to Massachusetts, where people were bound to be dishonest and depraved, in the end Carlin won the battle, using a plan of attack that included equal amounts of pleading, promises, and tears.
On this beautiful blue day, Carlin had a single battered suitcase thrown beneath the seat and a backpack crammed with sneakers and bathing suits. She had very few other belongings left at home, only some threadbare stuffed animals on her bed and an awful coat her mother had bought as a going-away present at Lucille’s Fine Fashions, a fuzzy acrylic monstrosity Carlin had hidden in the utility shed, behind some retreaded tires. Carlin planned to keep her plane ticket as a souvenir, forever and ever, if it didn’t dissolve first. She’d handled the ticket so many times that the print had worn off on her skin; she’d washed and she’d scrubbed, but there remained little gray flecks on her fingertips even now, the marks of her own ambition.
All the while she was on the jet traveling north, and then again as the train sped through Boston’s endless construction sites, Carlin had felt little knobs of doubt rising beneath her skin. Who was she to think she could forge such a completely different life for herself? Here she was, dressed in a cheap pair of jeans and a T-shirt she’d purchased at a secondhand store, her blond hair pinned up haphazardly with metal clips that were rusty from the Florida humidity. Anyone could see she didn’t fit in with the other well-dressed passengers. She didn’t own a decent pair of boots, and had never had her hair cut by a professional, always snipping the ends herself when too much chlorine took its toll. She had swamp dust on her feet and nicotine stains on her fingers, and came from a universe of hash and eggs and broken promises, a place where a woman quickly learned there was no point crying over spilled milk or bruises left by some man who claimed to love a little too hard or too much.
But in spite of her history, and all she believed she was lacking, Carlin felt hopeful once they were out of the city. They passed acres of goldenrod and fields where cows were grazing. It was the season of the warbler migrations and huge gatherings skimmed over the meadows, wheeling back and forth as if of one body and mind. Carlin struggled to open the sooty window in order to savor the September air, and was caught off guard when a tall kid toting a huge duffel bag approached to help raise the jammed window. The boy was far too skinny, with a shock of unruly hair that made him seem elongated, even storklike. He wore a long, black coat that hung like a sackcloth on his spindly frame and his work boots were unlaced, leaving his feet to slop around as if they were fish. An unlighted cigarette dangled from his wide mouth. Even with the fresh air streaming in through the open window there was no way to disguise the fact that he stank.
“Mind if I sit down?” Not bothering to wait for an answer, the boy took the seat directly across from Carlin, setting his duffel bag in the aisle, unconcerned that it might cause a navigational problem for anyone wishing to pass by. He had the sort of luminous skin that can only be achieved by spending hours in a dark room while recovering from a migraine or a hangover. “God, those idiots in the next car from the Haddan School were driving me crazy. I had to escape.”
Carlin noticed that he was nervous in her presence, she could tell from the flutter of a pulse beneath his eye. A very good sign, for a boy’s apprehension always set Carlin at ease. She repinned a stray lock of loose hair with one of the silver clips. “That’s where I’m going,” she informed her fellow traveler. “The Haddan School.”
“But you’re not an idiot. That’s the difference.” The ungainly boy searched through his gear until he found a Zippo lighter. When Carlin pointed to a no-smoking sign, he shrugged his bony shoulders and lit up anyway. Carlin smiled, entertained for the first time since she’d set off from home. She leaned back in her seat, waiting for this oddity to try to impress her again.
He introduced himself as August Pierce from New York City, sent to Haddan by his overburdened father who hadn’t had a moment’s peace since the day Gus was born, shouldering the burden of raising his son after the death of his wife. The old man was a professor of biology with high expectations for his one and only boy; there were those who insisted upon rooting for loved ones long after they’d been thoroughly disappointed, and such was the case with Gus Pierce’s father. Having failed again and again, Gus believed he owed his father one last try. Not that he himself anticipated the least bit of success. Why should Haddan be any different from the other schools he’d attended? Why should anything good ever happen to him? He had been born on the seventh day of the seventh month and he’d always had bad luck. He could cross his fingers, he could knock on wood, and he’d still hit his head upon every ladder; he’d take every wrong turn possible. While everyone else progressed on the flat, straight road toward the future, Gus fell into manholes and gutters face first, with no visible means of escape.
He viewed his own life as a prison sentence and experienced his existence much as a condemned man might have. If anything, the beauty of the world confounded him and made him more despondent. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that a simple encounter could fill him with such optimism. He’d thrown himself into the seat across from Carlin in a fit of jitters, half expecting her to call for the conductor and have him bodily removed, and now here she was, talking to him. A sparrow flying out of his mouth would have been more anticipated than a beautiful girl such as this offering him a piece of gum. Girls like Carlin usually looked right through him; he existed in a sub-universe, a world of losers, a world of pain, located in the basement of reality, several levels beneath the realm of pretty faces and possibilities. If Carlin was leaning forward, listening to his falsified life story without laughing in his face, anything might happen: Blackbirds might turn into ginger cakes. Willow trees might burst into flame.
“Choose a number between one and twenty,” August Pierce now suggested to his newfound companion. “Don’t tell me what it is.” He had picked up several tricks with which to amaze, and this seemed as good a time as any to put his talents to use.
Carlin did as she was told, although her expression had hardened into a disbeliever’s stare.
Gus closed his eyes and made a show of his prestidigitation, at last plucking a number from the air. “Seven,” he said, triumphantly, or at least he hoped for triumph as he was attempting a ruse any beginning conjurer who knew the first thing about logic could neatly manage.
Yet for all the trick’s success, Carlin was not pleased. She hated to be transparent and she certainly didn’t wish to be revealed in any way. Even now, she was in the process of perfecting a story that would alter her background and create a new identity. She intended to tell people that her parents worked for the government, and although they had never settled down they had always encouraged her swimming, transporting her to races and events no matter where they might be living. A far better tale to tell than one that included a mother who worked the cash register at the Value Mart, a father she’d never seen, and the dozens of times she’d had to hitchhike to swim meets. With deception as her plan, a boy who could read her mind was a definite liability, for seven was indeed her chosen number.
“It’s simple probability,” Gus explained when he realized Carlin hadn’t appreciated the trick. “Most people will choose either three or seven.”
Carlin glared at him, scornful. Her eyes were a shade of green that could turn gray in an instant, like shallow water that mirrored any change in the weather. “I’m not most people,” she told him.
“No,” Gus Pierce agreed. Even a nitwit such as himself could make that distinction. “You’re definitely not.”
The train had begun to lurch into Haddan Station; the whistle blew long and low, rattling windows in houses closest to the train tracks, frightening crows from treetops and telephone lines. Carlin grabbed for her backpack. She had a hundred and fifty dollars in her wallet, which she planned to use toward a return ticket home in June, and no assurances of anything in between. She probably would have deserted Gus even if he hadn’t pulled his stupid mind-reading stunt, and it came as no surprise to him when she hurried to get to the door before the train came to a standstill, dragging her suitcase out from beneath the seat. When Gus offered to help, Carlin appraised him carefully. Experience had taught her it was best to inform someone when she knew she’d never be attracted to him. It saved so much bother and confusion in the end.
“We might as well get this over with,” she said. “I’m not interested.”
Gus nodded his agreement. “Why would you be?”
He was so baffled by the notion that he might ever stand a chance with her, and so sincere, Carlin couldn’t help but grin before she headed for the exit. Watching her walk away, Gus realized that her hair was the color of stars, those pale distant galaxies that are too far away ever to be charted or named. He fell in love with her in the very instant he was disclaiming his interest. When he and Carlin met next she would probably walk right past him, as though he were a piece of litter or trash. But perhaps not; strange things had been happening ever since Gus had set off for Haddan. On the shuttle from New York, for instance, the flight attendant had given him a complimentary mini-bottle of Chivas, no questions asked. In the club car, he’d requested a bag of potato chips only to have the cashier throw in a tuna sandwich on the house. Most unexpectedly and most wonderfully, a beautiful girl had not only spoken to him, she’d smiled at him. In all honesty, this was the best run of luck August Pierce had ever possessed.
As he stepped off the train, his good fortune appeared to continue. Two seniors from Haddan—Seth Harding and Robbie Shaw, good-looking, serious boys of the sort who would never associate with Gus under any circumstances—were holding up a sign with his name. When he approached, they grabbed his duffel bag and clapped him on his back as though he were a long-lost brother. Out in the sweet country air, with all that blue sky above him and the warblers chattering in every bush, Gus felt dizzy with confusion and with something that, had he been anyone else, would have been easily recognizable as joy.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?” Gus asked as his cohorts loaded his gear into a BMW idling at the curb.
“Perfect score on your aptitude tests? Editor of the school newspaper in eighth grade at the Henley School in New York? You’re the one,” Seth and Robbie insisted.
Gus squeezed his long legs into the back of Seth’s car even though the information they’d gathered was clearly sketchy at best, stray pieces of his autobiography garnered from his Haddan application, a portrait that carefully omitted his tendency toward depression and rebellion and the fact that he’d been suspended from the Henley School for laziness and insubordination. But what the hell, at worst he had a free lift to school, and when they passed Carlin hauling her heavy suitcase down a brick-paved sidewalk, he turned to gaze at her mournfully, wishing she’d see him accompanied by his unlikely comrades.
On the short ride to the school, Gus was informed that he’d been granted the honor of residing at Chalk House, although for his part, he could not figure out why he’d been chosen for this distinction nor could he understand what was so desirable about the dilapidated old house at which they arrived. On the outside, Chalk was no different than any other dorm on campus. A squat, boxy place, it was covered with white clapboards; there was a wide front porch, littered with Rollerblades and hockey sticks, and around back, a latticework entranceway where garbage cans were stored alongside expensive mountain bikes. On the first floor were several gracious rooms that boasted mahogany woodwork and working fireplaces, but these were always bequeathed to upperclassmen, who had already paid their dues; freshmen were relegated up to the attic. At the rear of the house, two private apartments had been tacked on. In one lived the coach, Duck Johnson, whose snoring had been known to rattle windowpanes; in the other lived Eric Herman, who spent more time in his office at the humanities building than he did in his own quarters.
Because of its proximity to the river, Chalk House was by far the dampest building on campus. A film of mold coated any item left in the showers overnight, and in the evenings, snails left slippery trails along hallways and walls. Each term brought boys who couldn’t resist climbing onto the roof, where they aimed their piss directly into the Haddan River from atop their perilous roost. None of these boys had ever been successful and, thankfully, none had fallen in such an attempt, but even the alumni association, never the champion of change, had agreed that the building was structurally unsound. Last spring a railing had finally been built along the roof. Still, the house was in miserable condition, with a dreadful electrical system that blinked on and off during storms and ancient plumbing that grumbled and clogged. In the rafters, on the far side of the damp plaster walls, there lived generation after generation of ill-tempered raccoons who squabbled and paced at night, so that bickering and snarling drifted into the dreams of the freshmen in the attic, and not a single one of these boys ever had a good night’s sleep until their first term was over and done.
Yet no one would dare to suggest that this venerable house be torn down, and most people envied its residents. There were rumors that students could buy their way in, and suggestions that the odds of being chosen for Chalk were greatly increased if one’s father or cousin had been a boarder. Indeed, there were distinct advantages for Chalk House residents. At all other houses, students had to vacuum floors and clean bathrooms, but at Chalk a maid was employed by a group of alumni; she came in every Wednesday to sort laundry and on Thursdays she made up the beds with fresh linens. Chalk boys were the first to register for courses and because the house had its own parking area, seniors were allowed to have cars on campus. Such entitlement had clearly paid off. For more than a hundred years, boys at Chalk had graduated at the top of the class, guided into a world of privilege with the help of those who had gone before them. There were Chalk alumni on most college admission committees and out in the world more alumni were eager to hire a brother who’d lived in the old house beside the river, that falling-down pile of wood and bricks where the wind rattled down the chimney and the swans always put up a good fight when chased off the porch.
The students who had not been chosen for Chalk, those boys who lived in Otto House or Sharpe Hall, felt a sort of bitterness from their very first day on campus, as if already, before anyone had seen their faces or knew their names, they had been judged lacking, fated to belong to a lower echelon where they would always be second best, chosen last for teams, never dating the prettiest girls from St. Anne’s or daring to hope for a kiss under the weeping beeches. But these petty jealousies arose later on in the term; during the first weeks of school there was a sense of good fellowship as everyone settled in. The trees were still green and evenings were warm; the last of the crickets called in the meadows, a constant song most people found comforting, for it reminded them that there was still a world beyond the confines of Haddan.
Some people fit in easily at the school, but each year there were bound to be those unable to accommodate or conform, whether they were sullen or frightened or shy. In a place where teamwork and good cheer were highly regarded, loners were easily identified, and Carlin Leander was clearly among them. Although she was pretty and had quickly proven herself a worthy member of the swim team, she was moody and spent too much time on her own to be one of the crowd. As soon as practice ended, she took off by herself, like one of those bobcats people said roamed the woods, a breed too high-strung and suspicious to be among its own kind.
Such was the case with most unhappy students; they avoided even one another, so intent on their own unhappiness they failed to notice the other lost souls around them. These students often found their way to the pharmacy on Main Street. They cut classes and sat at the counter in the afternoons, ordering cups of coffee, trying to work up the nerve to buy cigarettes. They clearly had no idea that Pete Byers, the pharmacist, had never sold tobacco to a minor in his life. Anyone looking for that sort of thing would have far better luck at the mini-mart, where Teddy Humphrey would sell just about anything to a kid from Haddan; damn them but not their money as far as he was concerned. Have a good fake ID in hand and it was not Teddy’s job to wonder why, but simply to sell a six-pack of Samuel Adams beer or Pete’s Wicked Ale to any customer who waited in line.
Most people in town paid no attention to the Haddan students. There were new ones each year, and although every freshman class brought an aura of high hopes and even higher energy, they’d be gone in four years, the blink of an eye really, when sorted into the history of a town like Haddan. In this village most people stayed put; the farthest a resident might move was to a house around the corner when they married or, eventually and sadly, perhaps down to the rest home over on Riverview Avenue.
Every September, when the new students settled in, they came to buy boots at Hingram’s Shoe Shop, then went about setting up a bank account at 5&10 Cent Bank where pretty Kelly Avon, who was always so helpful, had learned to keep a straight face whenever some fourteen-year-old wanted to deposit a check for several thousand dollars. Nikki Humphrey, who’d stayed married to Teddy from the mini-mart for far too long, never took it personally when groups of Haddan girls come sashaying into Selena’s, ordering lattes and blueberry scones, expecting quick service, as if Nikki were nothing more than an automaton or a household servant. Before long these girls would be gone and Nikki would still be in Haddan, putting all the money spent on lattes and scones to good use by remodeling the kitchen of the cute little house she’d bought on Bridal Wreath Lane after her divorce.
Some local people actually looked forward to September; they enjoyed witnessing all that youth spilling onto their sidewalks and into their stores. Lois Jeremy, from the garden club, often sat out on her gabled porch facing Main Street on Friday afternoons just to watch for those Haddan School boys and girls. It brought tears to her eyes to think of the expectations she’d had for her own son, AJ, and for a moment or two she ignored her perennial border, which she always covered with marsh grass rather than store-bought mulch to protect the bulbs from early frosts.
“Aren’t they adorable?” Lois would call to her best friend, Charlotte Evans, who lived right next door and who’d had quite a year herself, what with Japanese beetles destroying half her garden and her youngest daughter going through that nasty divorce from that nice psychologist Phil Endicott who no one would have ever expected to be the sort of individual to have a girlfriend on the side.
“They couldn’t be cuter.” Charlotte had been deadheading her lilies and pulling damp leaves from between the twisted canes. She leaned on her rake to take a closer look at the Haddan boys in their khaki pants as they headed into town, and all those lovely, young girls trailing after them. The girls reminded her of her own daughter Melissa, the one who was crying all the time and taking Prozac and every other antidepressant she could get her hands on.
“I’d guess they’re having the time of their lives.” Lois Jeremy’s lips trembled as she watched. Two girls had begun to skip, showing off for the boys; their long hair swung out behind them and they giggled, but their childish gait could hardly belie their womanly legs.
“Oh, I’d say so,” Charlotte agreed, feeling slightly dizzy herself, perhaps from all the raking she’d done or from thinking too much about Melissa’s divorce. “Isn’t it lovely to see people who are happy?”
Of course Mrs. Jeremy and Mrs. Evans could not be expected to guess how many girls at St. Anne’s cried themselves to sleep. Unhappiness seemed to double when trapped beneath one roof. Mood swings were common; behavior marked by half-truths and secrets. One tall, dark girl named Peggy Anthony refused all solid food, choosing instead to drink only milk, supplemented by the candy bars she hid in a suitcase stored under her bed. There was a senior named Heidi Lansing who was so nervous about college applications she had pulled out half the hair on her head before she’d even begun to write her essays, and a sophomore named Maureen Brown who lit black candles on her windowsill before bed and so alarmed her roommates with the wicked conversations she held in her sleep that these anxious girls had taken to spending nights in the bathroom, unrolling sleeping bags on the tile floor, so that anyone wanting to take a shower or use the toilet was forced to step over their slumbering forms.
Carlin Leander did not cry herself to sleep or starve herself, yet unhappiness coursed through her, even when she plunged into the cold water of the pool. In fact, she hadn’t much to complain about; she’d been granted a large airy room on the third floor and roommates who were perfectly pleasant. It was not these girls’ fault that they had more than Carlin: more money, more clothes, more experience. Both Amy Elliot and Pie Hobson had filled their closets with boots and wool jackets and dresses so expensive a single one cost more than Carlin had spent on her yearly wardrobe, most of it bought at secondhand stores and at the Sunshine Flea Market, where it was possible to buy five T-shirts for a dollar, never mind the fraying seams or the moth holes.
Lest her roommates take her up as a charity case, Carlin elaborated on the story she’d come up with on the train: the only offspring of a father and mother who traveled the world, she’d far more important things to worry about than clothes. Unlike her roommates, she hadn’t the chance to covet or hoard. She and her family weren’t the sort of people who’d had time to gather personal effects or put down roots. They were better than that, her story implied, superior in some deep and moral way. So far, no one had challenged her story, and why should they doubt her? Truth had very little to do with a girl’s image at St. Anne’s; here, an individual was whoever she claimed to be. Those who had never been kissed professed to be sexually wild, and those who’d been through more boys than they cared to remember insisted they would remain virgins until their wedding day. Identity was a mutable thing, a cloak taken on and off, depending on circumstance or phases of the moon.
Carlin’s only bad moments had come with the swim team, and that was because she’d been foolish enough to let down her guard. If she’d been thinking straight she would never have trusted Christine Percy, the senior who had informed her that all girls on the team were required to shave their private parts. Afterward, they had all teased Carlin, along with Ivy Cooper, the other new girl, for being so gullible. There were jokes about how chilly Carlin and Ivy would now be. Everyone had been through the same hazing; losing a little hair and a little pride was believed to strengthen team bonds. After this initiation, a girl was welcomed as a true teammate, at a celebration with some contraband wine, bought at the mini-mart with Christine’s fake ID. Carlin, however, became even more withdrawn; it didn’t take long before the other girls learned to leave her alone.
Each night, Carlin waited for the hour when she could flee from St. Anne’s. After curfew, she lay unmoving in her bed, until at last her roommates’ breathing shifted into deep, even rhythms; only then was she ready to make her escape out her window, in spite of the thorny vines that coiled up the fire ladder and left traces of blood on her fingers as she climbed to the ground. In an instant she felt free, let loose into the sweet, inky Massachusetts night, away from the steam heat and close quarters of St. Anne’s. At first, she only stayed out long enough to have a quick cigarette beside the old rosebushes, damning the spiked vines as she pricked herself accidentally, then sucked the blood from her fingers. But after a while she dared to go farther, walking down to the river. One night, when there was no moon and the sky was perfectly black, the need to stray took hold. A ribbon of mist had settled onto the horizon, then flattened out to wind through the shrubbery. In the smooth still air, the edges of things melted, disappearing into the deep night, so that an elm tree might suddenly appear in the path; a wood duck might unexpectedly arise from the lawn. Although Carlin’s shoes sank into the mud, she was careful to stay in the shadows to ensure that no one would catch her out after curfew.
The air was surprisingly chilly, at least to someone with thin Florida blood, and although Carlin was wearing a fleecy jacket, on permanent loan from her roommate Pie, she still shivered. In the dark, she couldn’t tell east from west, and once she reached the edge of campus, she thought it best to follow the river. The evening had been leaden, with gray skies and the threat of rain, but now, as Carlin crossed a playing field and found her way into a meadow, the clouds began to clear, allowing a few pale stars to shine in the sky. She passed beneath an old orchard, where deer often congregated at this time of year. Burrs hidden in the tall grass clung to her clothes; field mice, always so bold in the hallways of St. Anne’s after midnight, scurried away at her approach. For more than a hundred years, Haddan students had been following this same route, venturing beyond the riverbanks and the meadows in search of a place where rules could be broken. A passageway leading to the old cemetery had been cut through the brambles and witch hazel. Rabbits had often used this trail as well, and the impression of their tracks—two small paw prints close together, then the larger back feet swung out to land in front—had beaten down a clear path in the grass.
The first citizens to be buried in the Haddan School cemetery were four boys who gave their lives in the Civil War, and every war since has added to their number. Faculty members who preferred this spot to the churchyard in town could also be interred within these gates, although no one had asked for this privilege for more than twenty years, not since Dr. Howe had passed on at the age of ninety-seven, too stubborn to give in to death until he’d neared the century mark. This cloistered location offered the sort of privacy Carlin had been searching for; if given a choice, she preferred keeping company with the dead rather than having to put up with the girls of St. Anne’s. At least those who’d passed on did not gossip and judge, nor did they wish to exclude anyone from their ranks.
Carlin unhooked the lock on the wrought-iron gate and slipped inside. She didn’t realize she wasn’t alone until the flare of a match illuminated not only the enormous elm in the center of the cemetery, but the figure beneath it as well. For a moment, Carlin felt her heart heave against her chest, then she saw it was only August Pierce, that silly boy from the train, sprawled out upon a flat, black slab of marble.
“Well, well. Look who’s here.” Gus was delighted to see her. Although he’d been coming to the cemetery since his first night at Haddan, he was nervous in the dark. There was some dreadful bird in the big elm tree that snickered and called and every time there was a rustling in the bushes Gus felt the urge to run. He had been ever alert, fearing he might have to defend himself against a rabid opossum or a starving raccoon willing to do battle for the Snickers candy bar Gus had stored in his inner coat pocket. With his luck, it was most likely a skunk lying in wait, ready to douse him in a vile cloud of scent. Expecting all of these dreadful things and finding Carlin Leander instead was more than a relief. It was bliss.
“Automatic suspension if we’re caught smoking,” he informed her as they inhaled on their cigarettes.
“I don’t get caught.” Carlin had come to perch on the marker of Hosteous Moore, the second headmaster of the Haddan School, who had insisted on swimming in the river every single morning, despite rain, sleet, or snow, only to die of pneumonia in his forty-fourth year. He had been a smoker, too, preferring a pipe, which he took daily, right before his swim.
Gus grinned, impressed by Carlin’s bravado. He hadn’t the least bit of courage, but it was a trait he greatly admired in others. He stubbed his cigarette out in the dirt beneath a hedge of Celestial roses. Immediately, he lit another. “Chain-smoker,” he confessed. “Bad habit.”
Carlin pulled her pale hair away from her face as she studied him. In the starlight, she looked silvery and so beautiful, Gus had to force himself to look away.
“I’ll bet it’s not the only bad habit you’ve got,” Carlin guessed.
Gus laughed and stretched out on the black marble slab. Eternus Lux was engraved beneath Dr. Howe’s name. Eternal light. “How right you are.” He paused to blow a perfect smoke ring. “But unlike you, I always get caught.”
Carlin would have suspected as much. He was so vulnerable, with his wide, foolish smile, the sort of boy who would chop off his foot in order to escape from a steel trap, too intent on his own agony to notice that the key had been there beside him all along. He was doing his best to appear casual about their chance meeting, but Carlin could practically see his heart beating beneath his heavy black coat. He was such a nervous wreck it was actually quite sweet. Dear Gus Pierce, ever cursed and denied, would make a true and faithful friend, that much was evident, and Carlin could use an ally. However strange, however unlikely, Gus was the first person she’d truly felt comfortable with since her arrival in Massachusetts. For his part, by the time they walked back along the river, August Pierce would have died for Carlin had he been asked to do so. Indeed, she had read him correctly: in return for a single act of kindness, he would remain forever loyal.
Carlin’s roommates and the rest of the girls in St. Anne’s could not fathom the friendship, nor understand why Carlin soon spent so much time in Gus’s room at Chalk House, where she lounged on his bed, head resting in the crook of his back, as she read from her Ancient Civilizations text for her class with Mr. Herman or made sketches for Beginning Drawing with Miss Vining. The other girls shook their heads and wondered if Carlin had any sense at all. The boys they wanted were the ones they couldn’t have, the seniors at Chalk, for instance, such as Harry McKenna, who was so good-looking and smooth he could cause someone to grow weak in the knees by bestowing one of his famous smiles on a sweet, unsuspecting girl, or Robbie Shaw, who’d gone through so many coeds during his first year at Haddan he was nicknamed Robo-Robbie, for his inhuman stamina and lack of emotion.
That the girls at St. Anne’s had no understanding of what should be valued and what was best cast away did not surprise Carlin in the least. She could well imagine what they might do if they ever got hold of the true details of her life before Haddan. Wouldn’t they love to know that her supper often consisted of sandwiches made of white bread and butter? Wouldn’t they be amused to discover she used liquid detergent to wash her hair because it was cheaper than shampoo, and that her lipsticks had all been swiped from the makeup counter at Kmart? The girls at St. Anne’s would have gleefully gossiped for days had they known, so why should Carlin be influenced by their remarks? She chose to ignore Amy’s nasty comments when Gus left notes in their shared locker or sent e-mails; she did not flinch when the house phone rang and Peggy Anthony or Chris Percy shouted up to tell her that her devoted slave was calling, yet again, and could she please tell him not to tie up the phone.
Carlin particularly looked forward to the messages Gus managed to sneak to her during swim practice. How he got past the matron was simply a mystery, but somehow he achieved what most boys at Haddan only dreamed about: total access to the girls’ gym. He knew any number of worthwhile tricks and had inscribed a nasty message with rubbing alcohol on Amy’s mirror that appeared one day when the air was especially damp. He could unlock the door to the cafeteria after midnight with a skeleton key and, once inside, manage to pry open the freezer and treat himself and Carlin to free Popsicles and ice cream bars. He could pay Teddy Humphrey at the mini-mart for a pack of cigarettes, yet walk out the door with the coins still in the palm of his hand. But the most amazing and astounding feat of all was that Gus Pierce could make Carlin laugh.
“I don’t get it,” Amy Elliot had said when Gus’s rude remarks surfaced on her mirror. “Does he think this is the way to get people to like him?”
“My roommates don’t get you,” Carlin told Gus as they walked along the river on their way to the cemetery, wondering if he’d have a reaction and not surprised to find he didn’t care.
“Few do,” Gus admitted.
This was especially true in regard to the residents of Chalk House. Chalk was said to be a brotherhood, but as is the case in some blood families, Gus’s brothers did not appreciate him. After a week they were eager to be rid of him. Ten days more and they downright despised him. As often happens in such close quarters, Gus’s peers did not hold back their distaste; before long, the attic began to stink with their sentiments as they left gifts that announced their disdain: old egg salad sandwiches, decaying fruit, piles of unwashed socks.
This year there were three freshmen in the attic: David Linden, whose great-grandfather had been governor of the Commonwealth, Nathaniel Gibb from Ohio, the winner of a tristate science fair, and Gus, mistake of mistakes, whose presence testified to the fact that although an individual’s statistics might look fine on paper, in the flesh they could spell disaster. As for Gus, he had come to Haddan with no appreciation for the human race and no expectations of his fellow man. He was fully ready to confront contempt; he’d been beleaguered and insulted often enough to have learned to ignore anything with a heartbeat.
Still, every once in a while he made an exception, as he did with Carlin Leander. He appreciated everything about Carlin and lived for the hour when they left their books and sneaked off to the graveyard. Not even the crow nesting in the elm tree could dissuade him from his mission, for when he was beside Carlin, Gus acquired a strange optimism; in the light of her radiance the rest of the world began to shine. For a brief time, bad faith and human weakness could be forgotten or, at the very least, temporarily ignored. When it came time to go back to their rooms, Gus followed on the path, holding on to each moment, trying his best to stretch out time. Standing in the shadows of the rose arbor in order to watch Carlin climb back up the fire escape at St. Anne’s, his heart ached. He could tell he was going to be devastated, and yet he was already powerless. Carlin always turned and waved before she stepped through her window and Gus Pierce always waved back, like a common fool, an idiot of a boy who would have done anything to please her.
From the day he’d arrived in the attic, unpacking at breakneck speed, if that’s what anyone could call tossing belongings haphazardly into a pile in the closet, Gus had known his arrival at Haddan was a mistake. One afternoon, Harry McKenna had knocked on his door to announce there was to be a house meeting that evening, coolly suggesting that Gus had better be there on time. Gus, who didn’t appreciate the superior tone of the older boy any more than he was inspired to take orders, instantly resolved to dodge what was bound to be a boring evening, one he’d just as soon avoid.
Instead, he had met Carlin in the cemetery and together they watched Orion rise into the eastern sky, high above a line of poplars and maples. It was a beautiful night, and poor Gus sensed something that felt like hope rise within him, not that the euphoria had lasted long. Gus hadn’t understood that what he’d been offered by Harry McKenna was not an invitation, but a mandate. This he realized only upon his return to his room. He’d gotten through the front door of Chalk House unnoticed, nearly two hours past curfew, and had safely made his way up the stairs, but as soon as he reached the attic he knew something was amiss. The door to his room was ajar, and even if he hadn’t remembered closing it when he left, the house was much too quiet, even for such a late hour. Someone wanted to ensure that he learn his lesson and the lesson was extremely simple: Certain invitations best not be ignored.
In his room, bedding and clothes had been heaped together, then urinated upon. Lightbulbs had been removed from his lamp to be broken and sprinkled on his window ledge, where the glass glittered prettily, like a handful of diamonds displayed on the peeling wood sash. Gus stretched himself out on his mattress with a bitter taste rising in his throat and lit a cigarette in spite of the no-smoking ordinance, and watched the smoke spiral upward, toward the cracks in the ceiling. In his experience, this was what happened; an individual paid dearly for all that was sweet. Spend the evening with a beautiful girl, walk through the woods on a cool, pleasant night, lie peacefully on another man’s grave to watch the three brilliant stars of Orion, and soon enough a message would arrive to remind you of what you were up against.
Gus rolled onto his stomach and stubbed his cigarette out on the floor beneath his bed. Red sparks rose up in a stream that made his eyes tear, but he didn’t care; fire was the least of his problems. He was so thin that his bones pressed into the springs of his mattress. Although he was tired, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, not tonight and probably not on any other night. If someone were to weigh the beauty of moonlight against the depth of human cruelty, which would win? Moonlight could not be held in the palm of one’s hand, but cruelty could cut deep. Who could begin to describe the color of moonlight once it had been replaced by the clear light of day? Who could say it had even existed, if it had ever been anything more than a dream?
After Gus had swept up the broken glass and washed his laundry in the bathtub, he went to check himself into the infirmary. His headache and nausea were real, as was his elevated temperature. Frankly, there weren’t many at Haddan who missed him. His teachers were relieved by his absence; he was a difficult student, disruptive and challenging one moment, bored and withdrawn the next. Carlin was the only one who worried about him, and she looked for him in vain, searching the cemetery and the dining hall. When she finally tracked him down, the school nurse, Dorothy Jackson, informed her there were no visiting hours at the infirmary. And so, Carlin did not see Gus for eight days, not until he was up in his own bed, his coat wrapped around him like a blanket. In the dim light he stared at the ceiling. He had just punched a hole through the old horsehair plaster, the act of someone with no recourse other than shortsighted destruction. There were bits of plaster dusting the floor and the mattress. When she found him, Carlin threw herself down beside him on the bed to examine the results of his anger. It was possible to view the clouds through the hole in the eaves; a square of blue sky peeked at them from between the rotted shingles.
“You’re insane,” Carlin told Gus.
But in fact, his actions had just cause. Upon his return, he’d stumbled over the gift his brothers had left for him while he’d been in the infirmary. A bloody rabbit’s foot, so fresh it was warm to the touch, had been deposited on his desk. Gus had picked it up gingerly, wrapped it in tissue, and placed this dreadful talisman into the garbage. And that was how he’d become a desperate individual, a boy who punched holes through plaster, brought low by injustice and shame.
“Did you think I was normal?” he asked Carlin. During his stay at the infirmary, he hadn’t once changed his clothes. His T-shirt was filthy and his hair was uncombed. He’d often locked himself in the infirmary bathroom, where he smoked so many cigarettes there was still a film of nicotine on his skin and the whites of his eyes had a yellow cast.
“I didn’t mean insane in a negative way,” Carlin recanted.
“I see.” Gus’s mouth curled into a smile despite his despair. Carlin could do that to him, cheer him even in the depths of his misery. “You meant insane in a positive way.”
Carlin propped her feet up against the wall, her long body stretched out against Gus’s even longer one. She held her hand up to the sunshine streaming in through the ceiling, completely unaware that her complexion had turned golden in the light.
“What will you do when it snows?” she asked.
Gus turned his head to the wall. Impossible, impossible; he was about to cry.
Carlin leaned up on one elbow to study him. She gave off the scent of chlorine and jasmine soap. “Did I say something wrong?”
Gus shook his head; there was a catch in his throat and the sound he emitted resembled the call of that dreadful crow in the cemetery; a wail so dispirited and broken it could barely begin to rise. Carlin lay flat on the bed, the beat of her heart quickening as she waited for him to stop crying.
“I’ll be gone by the time it snows,” Gus said.
“No you won’t be. Don’t be ridiculous, you big baby.” Carlin wrapped her arms around him and rocked him back and forth, then tickled him, knowing it would make him laugh. “What would I do without you?”
This was exactly why Carlin had never wanted to be close to anyone. When she was younger, she’d never even asked for a dog, and was temperamentally unfit to own a pet. It was so easy to be drawn in, to care and to comfort; before you knew it, you’d find yourself responsible for some defenseless creature.
“Was somebody mean to you?” Carlin threw herself on top of Gus. “Tell me everything and I’ll make them pay. I’ll defend you.”
Gus rolled over to hide his face. There was a limit to how much humiliation even he could take.
Carlin sat up, her back shoved against the wall, her shoulder blades in the shape of an angel’s wings. “I’m right. Somebody is being mean to you.”
Down in the cellar, where tadpoles hatched in the trickle of groundwater that always seeped through the concrete no matter how often repairs were made, Harry McKenna and Robbie Shaw had drawn two orange crates close to the air vent. Both boys were good-looking, fair and rawboned, but Harry McKenna possessed a truly extraordinary face. His straw-colored hair had been clipped close to his skull, a style that showed off his outstanding features. Girls swooned when they saw him, and it was said that no one could deny him once he turned on the charm. Sitting in the basement of Chalk House, however, he was not at all pleased, and his irritation showed. His beautiful mouth was twisted into a scowl and he snapped his fingers repeatedly, as if that simple action could erase what he heard through the vent, a flattened piece of metal that ran from the rear of the closets in the attic rooms down to this cellar. Through the vent it was possible to hear nearly every word that was said up above. Even whispers resonated through the tube; a cough or a kiss could be caught and sliced apart for purposes of examination or entertainment. The older Chalk boys always listened in on the new residents, and for this practice they made no apologies. How better to know exactly who was to be relied upon and who needed to be taught a lesson still?
Pierce was proving himself to be a washout at this very moment, pouring out his heart to some girl, bellyaching like a loser. Harry and Robbie had been eavesdropping for quite some time, hunched over until Harry’s long legs were riddled with cramps. Now he stood to stretch his back. Usually, he liked the benefits of his height, both with girls and on the playing field. He liked any advantage he could get and this was to be the year of his advantage. He was the senior in charge of Chalk House, and as such retained the honor of residing in what was once Dr. Howe’s office, before the new administration building was built. The room’s focal point was its handsome oak fireplace; tiny serrations had been carved into the side of the mantel, marks that were said to represent every woman Dr. Howe had slept with, and if the fireplace notches were to be believed, there had been quite a crowd.
Harry appreciated Dr. Howe’s room, just as he valued all his many privileges. He was a boy who was grateful and greedy in equal measure. Certainly, he wasn’t about to have some nitwit like August Pierce come in and ruin things. It was a cruel, cold world, wasn’t it? A universe spinning through the dark, without any pledges or guarantees. A person had to take what he wanted or be left behind, flattened by circumstance. Nowhere was this more true than in the gentle Massachusetts countryside, where the weather continually proved that most circumstances couldn’t be controlled. Chalk boys were certainly well aware of the wreckage that could be made of a life, an unfortunate observation made in the very first year, for these were the boys who had suffered the worst loss in the flood so many years ago. In the mayhem of the rising waters, the grades of every boy from Chalk House had evaporated from the dean’s marking book. It was a thoughtful fellow from Cambridge who discovered this calamity while mopping up the dean’s waterlogged office, and he ran back to tell the others what he had learned before any teachers found out.
All of their hard-earned A’s in biology, their B’s in Latin and Greek were gone, the letters washed away in blue pools of ink that had stained the floorboards a terrible cobalt that refused to come clean no matter how often the mop was applied. The Chalk boys wondered if the river had singled them out for torment. Why had this happened to them rather than the others? Why should their lives and careers be sacrificed? In the face of this disaster, a suggestion was proposed, a possibility voiced so humbly no one was ever quite sure whose idea it had been. Twist fate, that was the notion, one that was taken up immediately, by each and every boy. Turn calamity into compensation. Take what has been denied you.
It was a spring night, the thirteenth of May, when the boys at Chalk House changed their grades. The peepers were calling in a rush of damp music from every flooded corner of the campus; the moon floated above the library in a soot-black sky. The boys let themselves into the dean’s office, where they substituted their names for those of the students from Otto House and Sharpe Hall, claiming grades they hadn’t earned. The task was easily done, an elementary act of delinquency handily accomplished with a pick from the locksmith and some India ink, a simple bit of conjuring, but one so effective they decided to call themselves magicians, even though they had no true skills but one.
At the close of the term, the boys from the other houses who had once been assured an acceptance to Harvard or Yale roamed the campus, as despondent as they were confused. These students wondered what had happened to all their hours of study, for their grades had disappeared entirely, and from that day forward the term fair play was erased from their vocabularies. For those boys at Chalk who had thrown their lot in with the Magicians’ Club, all that was demanded was full loyalty. If any among them did not have the temperament for cheating, no time was wasted. The others dragged boys who might be the least bit unreliable out to the meadow where the rabbits made their homes and they beat such individuals senseless. In protecting themselves and their brothers, the boys learned an important lesson about unity. Rules bound people close, true enough, but breaking rules bound them closer still.
This philosophy had been explained to Dave Linden and Nathaniel Gibb, and then to Gus when he grudgingly attended the first official meeting of the term. A circle was formed in a clearing beyond the river, although it was true that the weather had always been more foe than friend to the members of the Magicians’ Club. The thirteenth of any month could be depended upon to be foul, with high snows or thunder or drenching rains. On this September meeting date, the fields were damp and the sky had turned the shade of gunmetal, with fog blanketing the fields. There were only bits of color: some green holly in the woods, a few strands of mulberry on the vine, a startled wild turkey that raced out from the underbrush in a flash of gold and red when disturbed by the intrusion. There was a chill in the air and the purple blooms of the flowering joe-pye weed had begun to turn indigo, always a sign of a cold and miserable winter to come. The boys sat around in a jumble of a ring, some lounging on the grass, others sitting on an old log that was often used to conceal contraband whiskey and beer. Those who knew what was to come and had been through it themselves were good-humored, even boisterous. But of course they’d already completed their hazing; they’d experienced the anxiety that Dave Linden and Nathaniel Gibb and even that idiot Gus Pierce, who was lying prone on his back, surely must be feeling as their induction approached.
To join, the rule was simple. An act of mayhem must be committed. Be it lawless or illicit, immoral or illegal, there was to be one hateful exploit: the single red thread that cross-stitched an individual’s fate, binding him to his brothers. When told what they must now accomplish, Nathaniel Gibb and Dave Linden averted their faces and stared at the ground. Everyone knew they were hiding their tears, not that this show of emotion would be held against them. If anything, this meant they took the initiation seriously. What was far more disturbing was the lazy manner in which Gus Pierce blew smoke rings and gazed through the dark, leafy branches overhead.
There was only one way to avoid initiation and still retain membership with full privileges, and that was to perfect the trick Dr. Howe insisted his wife execute in exchange for her freedom. Who could blame Annie Howe for wanting to dissolve their union, considering those notches on the fireplace and the cruel way she’d been cut off from family and friends? But Dr. Howe was no fool; the only way he would agree to her demands was to set forth a single impossible task. She could leave anytime she wished to, all she need do was take one of her favorite flowers, those icy white roses that grew beside the girls’ dormitory, and there before her husband’s eyes, she must turn the bloom red.
“She killed herself instead,” the older boys told whoever was not already informed of Annie’s fate. “So we don’t advise you to try it.”
Instead, it was suggested to the new boys that they look for one of the rabbits found in the meadows and the woods. These small, shy creatures were easily caught with some patience and fishing net. All that was needed was a strong piece of wire to wrap around the front foot, and a bloody little souvenir would allow admittance to the club. The best inductees, however, were considerably more creative than this, forsaking rabbit hunts and playing a game of one-upmanship of who could execute the most original or most illegal act. Who would go down in Chalk history as the most daring was still a title ready to be claimed. One year a joker from Baltimore had used a handsaw on the dean’s chair in the dining room, so that when Bob Thomas sat down to his dinner, he collapsed in a heap of splinters and beef. The previous autumn, Jonathan Walters, a quiet boy from Buffalo, had dipped into the school’s computer files, searching out any college recommendations that weren’t positive and altering critical passages to ensure that each letter afforded a wholehearted endorsement. There had been a wide range of induction activities, from thievery to high jinks; all that was necessary was that the deed performed would get a fellow in serious hot water if it was ever found out. That was the thread that bound them together: they were all guilty of something.
Some boys, it was true, used the initiation to serve their own twisted purposes. Three years ago Robbie Shaw climbed up the fire escape that led to the room where Carlin now slept; it was a holiday weekend and many of the students were gone, a situation Robbie was well aware of, since he’d planned his mission carefully. He told the fourteen-year-old girl he had targeted if she ever said a word about what he’d done, he’d come back and slit her throat. But as it turned out, there was no need for further coercion; the girl in question transferred to a school in Rhode Island the very next week. Robbie was criticized for going too far with his initiation, but privately his daring and his ability to choose his victim so well were applauded, for although the girl in question knew who her attacker was, she never did tell a soul.
Unfortunately, the decision to select August Pierce had not been as wise. Throughout the meeting, Gus kept quiet; it was impossible to gauge what he was feeling as he lay sprawled upon the damp grass. Afterward, he walked away without a word, and the other boys watched him carefully. There were those who would not have been surprised had Gus Pierce gone directly to the dean to report them, and still others who would have predicted that he’d hightail it to the police station in town, or maybe he’d simply phone home and beg his daddy to come and retrieve him. But in fact, Gus did none of these things. Perhaps another person with his convictions would have left that very night, simply packed his bags and hitchhiked down Route 17, but Gus was obstinate and he always had been. And perhaps he was prideful, too, because he thought he might just win at this game.
Gus had lied to Carlin about his father; the elder Pierce was not a professor, but rather a high school teacher, who on weekends performed at children’s birthday parties. In spite of himself, Gus had learned quite a lot on those Sunday afternoons when he sullenly ate cake in honor of some stranger’s birthday. He knew that a coin digested one moment cannot reappear in the palm of your hand seconds later. A bird pierced with an arrow cannot shake itself and then fly away. And yet, he was well aware that certain knots could be slipped open with a single touch and that doves fit quite nicely into jars with false bottoms. He had sat at the kitchen table with his father for hours, watching the same trick repeated, time and again, until what had once been a clumsy attempt was transmuted into seamless ability. Throughout his life, Gus had been taught that for every illusion there was a practical explanation, and such an education can prove worthwhile. After an upbringing such as this, Gus was aware of possibilities someone else might have overlooked, or taken for granted, or simply ignored. This much he knew for certain: for every locked trunk, there was sure to be a key.
Reprinted from The River King by Alice Hoffman by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Allice Hoffman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. “Graceful, beguiling, and quirky.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Rewarding…a novel not to be missed.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Set in and around an exclusive private school in fictional Haddan, Mass., bestselling author Hoffman’s latest novel flows as swiftly and limpidly as the Haddan River, the town’s mystical waterway…As ever, Hoffman mixes myth, magic and reality, addressing issues of town and gown, enchanting her readers with a many-layered morality tale and proving herself once again an inventive author with a distinctive touch.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Suspenseful and engrossing.”—Denver Rocky Mountain News
“It can be hard to find an example of good old-fashioned storytelling these days, but storytelling, refreshingly, is Alice Hoffman’s strength…The River King is full of wonderfully and satisfyingly odd twists and turns.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Reading her book is like having a dream that haunts even after we awaken.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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