Authors: Sarah S.
he man introduced himself on the phone as Michael Tayson, the new Swithin headmaster. “We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet,” he said.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Sylvie said quickly, sitting up straighter. It
was almost 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. A strangely intimate time, she thought, for a chat. “What can I do for you?”
“We have a bit of a situation,” Michael Tayson said.
For a moment, Sylvie wondered if she’d fallen through a pocket in time. Her sons, Charles and Scott, were still teenagers. They were upstairs in their rooms, doing their homework—or, in Scott’s case, not doing his homework—and it was Jerome Cunningham, the old headmaster, on the phone instead. He hadn’t retired yet, the boys hadn’t graduated yet, and James … well, James was still here, too, upstairs behind his closed office door. He could walk downstairs and she could still talk to him.
“One of our students passed away this morning,” Michael Tayson went on, bringing her back to the present. “We’re not sure how, but there are suspicions it might have been a suicide. His name was Christian Givens, a freshman. One of the scholarship boys.”
Sylvie murmured how terrible that was, how sorry she felt for the family. All her years on the board, they’d had a few deaths—some car accidents, a case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma—but never a suicide, thank God. Was he looking for suggestions about memorial services?
The church clock down at the end of Sylvie’s drive bonged out the hour. “He was a wrestler,” Michael finally said. “Your son coached him.”
“Oh,” Sylvie whispered.
“This is a delicate situation, obviously. We know how much you and your family … we know what you’ve done for us. But there might be questions. We’ll try as best we can to keep things out of the spotlight, but you have to understand that it might not be possible.” He took a deep breath. “Scott’s job is all right for now. The season’s finished. Next season, we’ll have to see. This might blow over.”
Sylvie stood up. “I’m sorry, what does this have to do with Scott?”
She heard a chair creaking and imagined that the man on the other end, a man she hadn’t yet met, was leaning back. Sylvie had been in the office the school reserved for the headmaster plenty of times, especially when Scott was a student. Jerome had never suspended Scott for anything, even though Sylvie assured him that he should treat Scott the same as any other student. She knew why he let Scott’s transgressions slide.
“There’s a rumor going around,” Michael Tayson said. “Apparently, there’s a lot of pressure among the wrestlers. Some of the boys couldn’t handle it.”
“The weight-loss pressure,” Sylvie ventured, “to make their weight class. But doesn’t that happen on all wrestling teams?”
“This wasn’t the typical weight-loss stuff, no.”
He coughed weakly. “I’m not saying it’s true. I’ll say that up front. But I’ve heard that if a boy doesn’t perform well in the match, the boys … I’m not sure exactly what they do. There are beatings. Sometimes brutal, though you know boys—they hide these things if they can. No one wants to be the snitch; no one wants to look pathetic. There’s humiliation as well. I’ve heard … well, I’ve heard all kinds of things. It’s hard to say who’s doing it. It may be just a few boys, but we suspect the others stand around and, well, watch. It’s definitely bullying. Some may even call it hazing.”
Sylvie felt dizzy. “Hazing,” she repeated slowly.
“I also heard that Christian was one of the boys who … didn’t perform well,” the headmaster said. “I doubt you would remember him from the matches—he was awfully small, didn’t get to compete much. Kept to himself. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for the wrestling team but, as you know, we encourage our boys to participate in sports …”
Outside, the porch light made the wet tree branches glitter. “How many people know about this?” She thought of this getting out, the community talking—people outside the Swithin family. Some would grab onto a story like this and hold tight. The school’s reputation suddenly felt delicate and precarious.
“We’ve tried to keep it quiet,” he answered. “Bullying is such a sensitive topic right now …”
Suddenly, Sylvie scoffed. “Who told you this crazy idea?” It couldn’t be true. Not at Swithin.
“I … I can’t say.”
There was a tingling sensation in her stomach. “And are you implying Scott encouraged these boys to … ?” She trailed off, touching the mantelpiece.
“Of course not,” Michael said. “That’s not—”
“What about the head coach? Mr. Fontaine? What does he have to say?”
“He’s in England, visiting his mother. He left after the season ended. We’re trying to reach him.”
“And how many boys on the team have corroborated this story?”
“I didn’t hear it from any of them, Mrs. Bates-McAllister.”
“Well, there you go.” Sylvie’s heart was beating fast. “Someone made this up. You know how teenagers get with rumors. You know how they embellish things. Something is whispered to one person and by lunch it’s a huge scandal.”
There was a long pause. “I’m not suggesting I believe it,” the headmaster said. “I’m just explaining what I’ve heard. We take everything seriously, as you know. For now, I’m arranging for a few people to meet with Scott. It will be an independent council of teachers, none of your colleagues on the board. I don’t want this to get out of hand, either for us or for you. Your family has done so much for the school, after all. And I know there have been some attempts at … how shall I put this? Some attempts at character assassination, I suppose, regarding certain members of your family in the past. I assure you that I intend to be discreet.”
Sylvie ground her nails into the fabric of the sofa. Character assassination. Discreet. He had a way of making the words sound so dirty. “This is unprofessional.” She paced around the room. “You can’t call a coach in to talk to them about a ridiculous rumor. And you shouldn’t come to me with something like this unless you know.”
“Calling Scott in to talk seems fair. If there was a rumor going around about someone else on the staff, another teacher, another coach, you would want us to feel that person out about it, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Bates-McAllister?”
When Sylvie pressed her hand to her forehead, she felt a muscle in her temple throb, a tiny flutter under her skin. She glanced out the window in the kitchen; Scott’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She dared to think of what he was doing: lifting weights at the gym, playing video games, driving the Mercedes too fast, whipping around the turns and grinding the gears. She thought of the jobs he’d held: the stint as an auto mechanic, mostly learning the ropes so he could soup up his own car, which he’d since crashed. Pouring concrete, coming home covered in gray film. Even that time he caddied at James’s golf club, though that had lasted only a day; he’d said the golfers were racist, giving him accusing looks as if he was going to walk off with their clubs. She’d felt urgently optimistic with each job he took, praying that this one would be his true path, the thing that set him straight. He quit each job after only a matter of weeks.
Something else appeared in her mind, too. When Scott was ten or eleven, she had come upon him in the basement. He was crouched in the corner, watching something. A mouse was trapped under a large glass vase, slowly suffocating. It clawed the sides of the vase, its little paws scrambling. How had it gotten there? It took her a few moments to understand. “Scott!” she’d cried out, but her voice was so weak, so ineffectual. Always so ineffectual. When he didn’t do anything, she’d pushed him aside, lifted the vase, and let the mouse go. Scott had looked at her like she was crazy. She complained about mice in the basement all the time—didn’t she want them dead? But it was Scott’s expression, as he’d watched the mouse flail under the dome that had made her set it free. The look on his face was one of iron-cold indifference, like he’d almost enjoyed the poor creature’s suffering.
Oh God, she thought now, a rushing feeling between her ears. Oh God.
“Mrs. Bates-McAllister?” the new headmaster said softly into the phone. “Are you still there?”
“Thank you for calling,” she said in the strongest voice she could muster. “But I think what you’re suggesting—”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” he broke in. “You’ve misunderstood—”
“—is a mistake,” she finished and hung up.
The living room was foolishly quiet. The antique armchair was tilted toward the bookshelf at a rakish angle. The old etchings of the Swithin School, commissioned by Sylvie’s grandfather and handed down to her when she had inherited this house, were at perfect right angles on the walls. Sylvie looked at the framed photograph of her grandparents that sat on the top of the sideboard. Her grandfather’s cunning, sepia-toned eyes seemed more narrowed than usual, as though he’d heard both sides of the phone conversation.
Oh, how she’d cared for everything in this house. How she’d taken pride in all its details, preserved it to the letter, thinking that keeping everything exactly the same would embalm the spirit and ideals of her grandfather forever. After all, this house essentially was her grandfather—the local press had dubbed it Roderick, the middle name he often went by. But the resemblance didn’t stop there. The old leather books on the shelves were like the wrinkled tops of her grandfather’s hands. The curled vines that climbed the stone walls were his thick mass of hair. The scalloped cornices on the porch resembled his mustache. Sometimes when Sylvie walked through certain rooms, she could still smell her grandfather—spicy, yet clean, like tobacco, and books and linen. She sometimes glimpsed a flicker out of the corner of her eye, a glimmer in a mirror, the wattage in a lightbulb adjusting— all signs, maybe, that he was watching.
Hazing. She couldn’t quite connect it to the meaning the new headmaster had given. She saw a fogged window instead, fresh with dew. A method used by pastry chefs to brown the top of a creme brulee. Hazing. It was too artful a word to have such a connotation.
“Well,” she said aloud, and brushed her already-clean hands on her pants.
She climbed up the staircase and stood in front of James’s office door. It had become her ritual to linger there for a moment before going in. Sometimes she even knocked, as if he were still inside. The room was colder and darker than the rest of the house. James had only been gone for two months, but the office had lost his essence—the general chaos of his papers, the constantly illuminated message light on his office line’s phone. All the books had been put away on the old bookshelves. James’s desk—a clean, modern thing of glass and metal that had long ago replaced Sylvie’s grandfather’s old, mahogany mammoth—had been wiped down weeks ago, not a fingerprint marring its surface.
A month ago, Sylvie finally found the key to James’s filing cabinet nestled behind one of the books on the shelves. It now rested at the base of the lamp, waiting. Sylvie could easily imagine sliding it into the lock on the filing cabinet. She could almost hear the click of the barrel releasing, the metallic hiss of the drawer opening. Knowing James, she guessed that he saved the most significant documents of his life in paper hard copy, not stored on his computer’s hard drive. All she had to do was unlock the drawer, riffle through a folder, and finally have a name to connect with her hurt. That would be all it took to know.
She remained in the office for a minute or so, daring herself. Then, as always, when things began to seem too close, she turned around and left the room, leaving the key behind.
J oanna Bates-McAllister—nee Farrow—had heard from the very start that her husband Charles’s adopted brother, Scott, was an asshole. An ungrateful asshole, were the precise words.
Needless to say, they’d never been close. According to her husband, Charles’s delivery had been so painful and dangerous that the doctors had told the Bates-McAllisters that it wouldn’t be safe to conceive again, so they had chosen to adopt. They’d gone through all kinds of hoops to bring Scott into their home. And look how that turned out, was what the entire family seemed to think, though no one ever said it aloud.
Recently, the Bates-McAllisters had willingly converted a whole section of their estate into a bachelor pad for Scott, furnishing it with high-tech electronics, a kitchenette, and even a separate entrance, never encouraging him to leave even though he was twenty-nine years old. Charles told Joanna that Scott didn’t hang out with a single student that went to their private school, Swithin, but instead with kids from public school. And not the public schools in the suburbs, either; Scott gravitated toward kids without parents, kids whose fathers were in jail, kids whose siblings dealt meth.
By the end of high school, Mr. and Mrs. Bates-McAllister’s standards for Scott had fallen so laughably low that they were relieved Scott had made it the whole way through Swithin without getting expelled, developing a drug addiction, or going to prison. Joanna had known lots of Scotts in her day. He was the kind of guy who somehow always had something pithy and painfully intuitive to say, even though he did miserably in school. What a pity, adults would whisper, crossing to the other side of the street when he came near. Wonder what went wrong? Joanna had dated a few watered-down versions of Scott in the past, their self-absorption impossible to crack, their indifference heartbreaking, and their roughness touching something deep inside her. Perhaps that was why she found herself defending him to her husband whenever he complained. Perhaps that was why she blushed whenever Scott came near, her heart drumming like a metronome cranked up to molto allegro.
Despite Scott’s tough exterior, when Charles told her that his brother had been implicated in a boy’s death at school, Joanna could not believe that he would have anything to do with someone’s suicide. Much less encourage … well, whatever had happened.
She tried to imagine what could have been going on? She tried to picture a fluorescent-lit, ripe-smelling wresting room. The boys in a huddle, having lost their match. Scott approaching, the anticipation of a pep talk about how they were going to practice harder and do better next time.
And then, what? Sure, a lot of people had it in them to say, You, you, and you. In the center there. Practice isn’t working, but maybe this will. And then beatings. Horrible humiliations, like Joanna had seen so many times on television. Scars that would never heal. Maybe all that had happened, but Joanna had her doubts about whether Scott cared enough to be that involved. It was high-school wrestling, for Christ sake. Scott didn’t seem to care about anything else; why start with that?
It was possible, she supposed, that he’d heard the boys were performing silly hazing rituals but hadn’t witnessed it firsthand, and so let it slip his mind, figuring the boys would just work it out themselves. Really, who wasn’t guilty of letting things happen without doing the appropriate things to stop them? Once, when Joanna lived in Philadelphia after college, she’d watched out her apartment window as a young guy robbed an old woman. The man knocked the woman to the ground and ran away with her purse—it was black patent leather, with an old-fashioned chain strap—and Joanna just stood stock-still against the kitchen counter, her hand to her mouth. Lately, more and more, Joanna felt as though she was watching her own life pass by without intervening. It was like, she sometimes thought, her true self was becoming smaller and dimmer, and all she could do was stand there, her hand at her mouth, simply staring.
Joanna and Charles had been in bed when Sylvie called with the news. Joanna picked up the phone, saw Sylvie’s name on the caller ID, and quickly passed it to Charles without picking up first, feeling too shy and intrusive to talk to Sylvie herself. Charles took the phone, waited, and then pushed back the covers, slid on his slippers, and padded out of the room. “Now wait, Mom,” he said as he walked down the hall. “Just a second. He said what? And that has to do with us … how?”
Charles came back to the bedroom a little later, his face ashen. The phone was in his limp right hand; his left hand raked through his hair. Joanna knew right away something was wrong. She also felt a twinge of annoyance that he’d gotten up from the bed to have the conversation away from her. Why didn’t he feel comfortable with her listening? They’d been married for six months; when would these boundaries between them go away?
“There’s some sort of trouble with my brother at school,” was all Charles had said. He’d climbed back into bed and turned the television to a tennis match, cranking the volume high. She’d pressed him for information, but he hadn’t told her much else, staring glazed-eyed at the screen. Most of the details were still tangled in Joanna’s mind. She didn’t understand whether there was any evidence that hazing had happened, or whether the school could point fingers at Scott and, by association, Sylvie, or what would happen if they did. Nor did she know if Charles believed, deep down, that Scott was capable of such a thing. He hadn’t said one way or the other.
t was the next day, as they were on their way to Charles’s childhood home, when Joanna dared to bring it up again. “So, is your mom worried about her place on the board?” she asked. Charles gave her a sidelong glance. “Why would she be worried?” Joanna sighed. Fine, he was going to make her spell this out. “Because of that boy’s suicide. Because of—you know—what people are saying. I thought you said the school was superjudgmental. If one family member’s bad, they’re all blacklisted.”
“Why would you think that?” Charles said.
“I don’t know,” she said, adding, “I didn’t go to that school, Charles. Remember? I don’t know what to think about it.”
“Well, you should know better than to think that.”
Charles had recently had his hair cut, the ends now hung bluntly
just above his ears, reminding her of the crisp bristles of a broom. He still went to the same barber who’d cut his hair when he was a boy. He was fiercely loyal in that way, patronizing the same business establishments for years, diligently keeping in touch with old prep-school friends, and even remaining faithful to inanimate, unresponsive things, such as old jogging routes and brands of breakfast cereals.
“And anyway, I don’t think it’s going to go very far. It’s just a stupid rumor,” Charles said as they swept past a large vacant lot that sold Christmas trees in December. “You know how kids talk.”
They turned up the winding street that eventually led to Sylvie’s house. She had invited them over for dessert that evening. Charles had announced the invitation only an hour ago upon coming home from work; a sharp contrast to the protocol by which Sylvie usually summoned them for visits—e-mailing them days ahead of time, negotiating both their schedules to see when was best for all. Sylvie wasn’t the type to demand they come only when it suited her. That was Joanna’s mother’s territory. If Joanna had to make a guess—and she always had to guess because none of the Bates-McAllisters would ever tell her directly—she’d say that today’s invitation was a response to whatever the situation was with the wrestlers.
Joanna sat back in the passenger seat, letting the iPod she’d been fiddling with fall to her lap. “So what happened, anyway? How’d the boy kill himself?”
“I don’t know,” Charles answered.
“Your mom didn’t tell you?”
“I don’t think she knows, either.”
“Was there a suicide note?”
“No. They don’t even know if it’s a suicide. They’re doing an autopsy to find out.”
Joanna paused, considering this. “My mother says Scott should talk to a lawyer.” “You talked to your mother about this?” His face registered annoyance.
“It just slipped out on the phone today,” she admitted.
“You had to run and tell her, didn’t you?”
“It just slipped out,” she repeated defensively, adjusting her seat belt. “So, do you have any idea who’s supplying these hazing rumors?”
“No.” He took one hand off the steering wheel and ran it over his head.
“Who could it be?”
“Joanna, I don’t know.”
“Why aren’t you curious?”
“Why are you?” But he said it quietly, almost tepidly.
The trees formed a canopy over the road. Small green buds dotted some of them, but others were bare. “I just worry, that’s all,” Joanna said. “Your poor mom. After your dad and all . . . she doesn’t need this.”
Charles pulled the lever for the wiper fluid. The windshield wipers made a honking sound and slid the liquid across the glass. “Probably not.”
“And I think you should help Scott. You’re his brother, after all. Don’t you think you should?”
“Well, he hasn’t asked for help.”
“People don’t always ask,” she reminded him.
“We don’t know that he’s done anything wrong.”
Joanna touched the smooth, slick buttons on her jacket. She was tempted to ask Charles if he really believed that.
“Don’t worry about it, okay?” Charles said, putting on his turn signal. “It’s not a big deal.”
They were at the turnoff to his parents’ house. It was so ensconced by trees it was easy to miss. Charles pulled up the long, winding drive. A pine near one of the turns had fallen against a few other trees, reminding Joanna of a drunken girl propped up by her friends at the end of a long night. They pulled into the circular drive behind Sylvie’s car, the barely used Mercedes she often parked outside, and Scott’s car, the slightly older Mercedes that Sylvie had given to him, which was always outside. Scott’s Mercedes had dings on the side, worn tires, and a speckled half-moon of rust across the front bumper. The back bumper was plastered with stickers, many of them angry. One bumper sticker near the window read free mumia; it featured a picture of a black man with a beard and dreadlocks who’d been wrongfully imprisoned. According to an article Joanna read on Wikipedia after first seeing the sticker, this Mumia guy had been accused of committing a crime because of preconceived notions about his past, his looks.
The house loomed ahead of them, a grand estate more than a hundred years old that Charles’s great-grandfather had passed on to Sylvie. It was made entirely of stone with a low wall around it, a little balcony on the upper floor surrounded by a wrought-iron terrace, and a six-car detached garage across the driveway. The house had several chimneys for the four fireplaces inside, three gables that demarcated the separate wings, and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster at the very highest point. There were three patios, a sunroom, and a pool out back, and the whole thing was surrounded by thick, shapely pines and an elegant garden. Whenever Joanna beheld the estate, she got reverent chills; she always felt like she needed to be on her best behavior here. It was like what her mother used to say to her when they went to Mass at the drafty, icon-filled, stained-glass Catholic Church in Lionville, Pennsylvania, where she’d grown up: Don’t make any noise. Don’t touch anything. God’s looking at you.
Sylvie was already waiting for them on the large brick side porch, her hands clasped at her waist, a brave smile on her face. As always, she was impeccably dressed in an ironed lavender skirt and a perfectly tucked-in eyelet blouse. She even wore heels, lavender, to match the skirt, and pearls looped twice around her throat. She always dressed this way—to go to the grocery store, to go for a walk. The ring Charles’s father had given her a few months before he died glimmered under the porch light.
“I made banana bread, Charlie,” she said after everyone hugged. “Your favorite.”
They entered the house through the kitchen. Dim, golden light filtered through the stained-glass window, dappling the white wooden cabinets, the ancient, rounded Sub-Zero refrigerator, and the stout, space-age MasterChef stove. The smell of banana bread drifted comfortingly through the air. Sylvie had put on an old classical record, presumably plucked from the collection that belonged to her grandfather.
“Sit, sit,” Sylvie urged, gesturing toward the kitchen table. A bunch of vacation property brochures were spread out on the surface. As Joanna and Charles sat down, a very different sort of song thumped through the walls to their left. Joanna cocked her head, listening to the thumping beat, the muddy bass, the muffled shouting. Scott’s suite shared a wall with the kitchen. She tried to meet Charles’s eye.
“So listen—we’re so behind!” Sylvie said, fluttering from the oven to the cupboards to the sink and then repeating the cycle all over again, though bringing nothing to the table. “We haven’t picked out a vacation house for this summer! But I think I found a good one. It’s on the water in Cape May. July seventh to the twenty-first.”
She plucked a magazine from the pile on the table and leafed to a marked page. “Here. It has seven bedrooms, which seems like a lot, but you know those houses—they’re all huge. Really, I wonder if we should just buy a place instead of rent. Then we could decorate it the way we want.”
Charles shifted in his seat. Joanna wondered if he was thinking what she was thinking: planning a vacation in the middle of a scandal seemed inappropriate. Only, was that what was going on? A scandal?
“And it’s brand new,” Sylvie went on, pointing at the tiny pictures of the house’s interior: a country kitchen with white bead board on the walls, a master bedroom with lavender striped curtains, and a shed filled with beach balls, bicycles, plastic kayaks, and kites. “It won’t have that smell; you know that old beach smell? Even the nicest houses get it sometimes.” She flipped through the catalog to another page. “Though this one’s nice, too; it’s closer to town. It’s hard to decide.” She looked up at Charles, her face softening as if a thought had just struck her. “Honey, don’t feel like you have to come for the whole time. I know you have to work. But at least for a week, right? And then for the weekends?”
The volume on the other side of the wall rose higher. Joanna glanced at Charles again, but his eyes were stubbornly fixed on the rental magazine.
“And we’ll need so many supplies,” Sylvie added. She grabbed a Land’s End catalog from the bottom of the pile. “I’ve marked lots of things.” She turned to a page that displayed flashlights, travel mugs, a fondue pot. “We could make s’mores on the beach,” she crowed gaily. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Huh,” Charles murmured vaguely.
Sylvie folded her hands over the magazine. “How is work, by the way?”
Charles shrugged. “You know, busy.”
“Dealing with any interesting clients?”
There was an abrupt, fuzzy thud next door, and then a faster-paced song. Joanna flinched, but she didn’t bother glancing at Charles again. He was obviously ignoring it, and her.
“Not really,” Charles spoke over the noise. “Same ones.”
“And Joanna?” Sylvie turned politely to face her daughter-in-law. “How’s the new house coming along?”
Joanna smiled. “Good. Lots of boxes to unpack still, though.”
“Have you met any of your neighbors?”
She looked down. “Uh, no one yet. But I’m sure we will soon.”
Sylvie nodded. Joanna could tell she was searching for something more specific she could ask her about—a hobby, maybe—but was coming up with nothing. “Excellent,” she finally said. And then, “Goodness. The bread.”
She scampered to the oven, slid on two mitts, and pulled the banana bread pan from the tray. Steam curled around her face, fogging her small, wire-framed glasses. She carried the pan over to the table, removed one of her oven mitts with her teeth, and set it on the table below the bread pan. The knife slid easily against the sides of the pan, and more steam gushed out. She pushed the pan over to Charles who cut himself a thick slice and put it on his plate. He used the side of his fork to cut off a bite.
Joanna waited and waited. Just as he was about to put the bite in his mouth, she touched his arm and said in a voice far whinier than she intended, “Charles?”
He looked up; she nudged her chin toward the pan. He lowered his fork. “Oh. Sorry.”
He began cutting her a piece, but she changed her mind and waved him away. “I’ll be back,” she muttered, standing.
“Joanna,” Charles protested. “I didn’t know you wanted any. You don’t usually eat dessert.”
“It’s fine,” she said loudly, backing out of the room. “I just … the bathroom.” She rounded the corner into the hall.
It was probably silly to feel slighted over banana bread. More than that, Joanna just felt too weird sitting there, looking at vacation houses, chatting about work, ignoring the obvious, especially with Scott fiddling with the stereo one wall away. Nothing seemed to ever get to the Bates-McAllisters, though. Joanna certainly hadn’t been raised like this. If Scott was her brother and her parents were faced with such a scandal—and if her parents were still together—they would confront the problem head-on. Her mother would be a hurricane of panic, making sweeping what-will-the-neighbors-think-of-us statements. Her father would be smacking his fist into an open palm, declaring he’d never wanted to live in such an arrogant, stick-up-your-ass part of Pennsylvania in the first place. He was from the western part of the state, where what one drove and where one shopped and the way one pronounced certain vowels didn’t matter nearly as much. His anger would just incite her mother’s panic—If only you would’ve tried harder to fit in, Craig, this may not have happened, she might say—and that, in turn, would stoke his fury, and they’d circle each other like two worked-up dogs, their bad energies becoming so toxic that a massive fight was inevitable.
Joanna walked down Roderick’s grand hall, which was lined on both sides by heavy, gold-framed oil paintings of foxhunts on scenic vistas, Scottish moors, and generals on horseback. Charles had first brought her here to meet his family two Julys ago, and though she’d been building up the Bates-McAllisters and their estate in her mind long before she and Charles met—though Charles didn’t know anything about that—the house had lived up to every one of her expectations. Sylvie’s meticulously tended garden had been abloom, the tiki lamps by the pool cast soft shadows across the slate patio, and there was a full moon over the roof, so perfectly centered that it was as though Sylvie and James had commissioned it to hang there for them alone.
She’d been blind to the house’s imperfections for a long time. She didn’t notice the wet wood smell. She didn’t see the chips in the leaded glass, the stains on the intricate woodwork, or the large brown patch on the ceiling from a previous leak. It didn’t occur to her that the Chippendale highboy chest of drawers was water-warped, or that the oil paintings needed a professional cleaning and that the chandeliers were missing several of their crystals. So what if one of the rooms was filled with nothing but piles of papers, old, cloth-wrapped paintings and a piano with chipped, yellowed ivory keys? So what if the library had a mouse hole the size of Joanna’s fist? So what if the oil painting of Charles Roderick Bates, Charles’s great-grandfather, which hung over the stairs, freaked Joanna out every time she passed by it? All old aristocratic homes had charming idiosyncrasies. And this was Roderick.
But lately, something had changed, and she’d begun to see the house as, well . . . old. Unkempt, even. The rooms were always too cold, especially the bathrooms. The cushions on the living room couch were uncomfortable, a sharp spring managed to press into her butt no matter which position she tried. Some of the unused rooms smelled overwhelmingly like mothballs, others like sour milk, and there were visible gaps amid many of the bathroom floor tiles, desperate for grout. The most unsettling thing, though, was that when Joanna walked into certain rooms, it was as if someone—or something—was following her. The house and everything in it seemed human, if she really got down to it. And not like a sprightly young girl, either, but a crotchety, elderly man. The pipes rattled like creaky bones and joints. When she sat down in a chair, any chair, there was an abrupt huffing sound, like someone collapsing from a long day’s work. The radiators wheezed, coughed, and even spat out strange hints of smells that seemed to be coming from the house’s human core. A whisper of soapy jasmine seeped from its plaster skin. An odor of ham and cloves belched out of an esophageal vent.
She stepped down the hall now, gazing at the black-and-white photographs that lined the walls. Sylvie had taken the pictures during a trip to the beach when the children were young. In some of them, Charles and Scott, probably about eight and six, were flying a kite. Charles had an intense look of concentration as he held the kite’s string, as if a judging committee was watching, while Scott looked disdainfully off toward the waves. In the pictures of them in the ocean, Scott ran happily toward the waves, his arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. It was startling to see a photo of Scott so young and carefree, enjoying life. James skipped out to the ocean, too, equally exuberant, but Charles hung back, his expression timid and penitent. The last photo in the row was a close-up of the three of them. Scott and their father were soaked, but Charles’s hair was still neatly combed, bonedry. Two genuine smiles, the third seemed forced.
“See anything interesting?”
Joanna jumped. Scott stood at the bottom of the stairs, his hands hidden in his sweatshirt pouch. His eyes glowed, as if she’d turned a flashlight on some wild animal in the woods.
Joanna pressed her hand to her breastbone. She could feel her heart through her thin sweater. “H-How did you get here?”
Scott gestured with his thumb toward the front door. The easiest way to get to the main house from his quarters was to exit through the door of his suite, walk all of four steps, and enter the house through the mud room, which led to the kitchen. Instead, Scott had walked the whole way around the outside of the house to this door, the front door. He had to know that Joanna and Sylvie and Charles were convened in the kitchen. The smell of banana bread was overpowering, penetrating the thick walls.
So he’d avoided them. Of course he didn’t want to see them. Was it because he didn’t want to answer their questions about the incident? Although that was laughable; they wouldn’t ask him questions. No one ever asked Scott questions. Sylvie would flutter about, shove a piece of bread at Scott, and hover over him obsequiously until he ate it. Joanna would make small talk, busying her hands with the bread knife or the catalogs. And Charles would sit silent, seething. Scott wouldn’t have to face anything. Everyone always tiptoed around him, even when he hadn’t done anything wrong.