Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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The quad of Abbot Academy overlooked a scenic pond, surrounded by red oaks and white pines, where one might imagine the boys pensively rowing at dawn across the misty waters. On the other side were a dozen charming, weathered buildings — the classrooms and dorms, which were more like houses. No one even called them dorms. They used the word home, as in “Do you want to go home after lunch?” A portion of a barn could be seen in the near distance, as well as a corral for the horses, since the type of preadolescent boys who attended Abbot were thought to thrive if given the opportunity to care for large mammals.
Today being the second Sunday of October, the boys’ parents had gathered on the quad, most of them exhausted from having driven grand distances to reach the school in rural New Hampshire. The day was glorious after weeks of steady rain, the sky above them a rich blue and cloudless. The annual Fall Jamboree was the only time, except in emergencies, when families were allowed on campus. The boys were gathered, too, their expressions unfamiliar to their mothers and fathers. Children are always changing, but they seem to change most rapidly when they are sent away from home and not seen or spoken to for months.
Many of the fathers appeared dressed for golf — in khakis and visors and colorful polos — while the mothers walked around with bright scarves knotted around their necks. “Look at me,” one woman instructed her son, her scarf an electric turquoise slashed with orange. “Look at me. Come on. It’s not like you’ve forgotten who I am.” Other parents took out their phones to snap photographs of a child who was twisting away, but not Beth and Tom Corbett. They did not wish to bring any pictures of this place back.
The Corbetts stood apart from the other parents in a shady spot beside a fountain. The sound of water trickling into a gray basin appeared to soothe their son, Luke, who was nine and had entered Abbot in August at the start of fourth grade. Their younger child — average, normal Ruby — was at home with a sitter. They had originally planned for her to come, but the afternoon before they were to leave, Ruby confided to Beth, “I don’t want to see my brother ever again.” Understandable, considering. So Beth had to scramble to find a last-minute sitter.
Beth and Tom had been standing beside the fountain for what felt like a long time, listening to Luke as he tossed out trivia questions. Luke had been quizzing them since their arrival late that morning. Already he had cycled through the presidents — which ones had died in office, or brought their children to live in the White House, or owned pets and what kind — and now he moved on to the subject of tsunamis.
“In what country did the tsunami of 2004 begin?” Luke asked, his head tipped back so he could track a flock of geese flying southward in ragged formation across the sky.
He wore a plain gray polo shirt, gray socks, and a pair of gray shorts with sagging pockets. His hair had grown long, covering his neck and falling into his eyes. He looked hungry to Beth, and a little hollow. She imagined that if she tapped him on his shoulder, she would hear an empty thud. She would never tap him on the shoulder like that. If she tapped him on the shoulder, he would scream. The only touch he would tolerate was two fingers pressed below the hairline of his neck. A “neck hug,” she called it.
Tom guessed China.
“I think it was actually New Zealand,” said Beth, taking a tentative step toward Luke, who jumped backward onto a flower bed of wild-looking red daisies as if she had shoved him.
They were both wrong. “Indonesia!” Luke shouted as he crushed the flowers beneath his feet. “Indonesia! Indonesia! Indonesia!”
In the center of the quad a trio of grills billowed charcoal smoke in preparation for the barbecue luncheon, while a dozen staff members set out folding chairs under a wide white tent.
“I have some questions for you, too,” Beth said to Luke.
“It’s not your turn,” said Luke.
“You’ve asked us thirty-five questions, Luke. I think it’s my turn to ask one.”
Tom laid a hand on Beth’s arm.
“It’s not your turn,” Luke repeated.
“My question is: How are you?” When he didn’t answer, she pressed on. “How do you like it here at your new school? Are you happy?” She kept her voice soft and quiet, as she had practiced: the voice of a patient, kind mother.
Luke shot questions back at her: “What’s the highest speed a tsunami can travel? The tsunami wave from the Tōhoku earthquake was how high? How many people died in the 1883 tsunami caused by the eruption of Krakatoa?”
Beth raised her voice over his: “Who are your friends? Do you have friends? Tell me about two of your closest friends.”
Luke’s hands swatted at the air as if he were surrounded by biting flies.
“Knock it off,” Tom whispered to Beth. “I mean, look at him.”
On the drive to New Hampshire Beth had read and reread the letter from the school therapist. It was supposed to contain everything a parent needed to know for a successful visit: Keep your personal devices in your pockets. Be forward looking. Stop dwelling in the past and start dwelling in the bright rooms of the future. Embrace change!
“Who was the first person to associate tsunamis with underwater earthquakes?” Luke shouted. “True or false: palm trees often survive tsunamis intact.”
At the bottom of the letter, the therapist had hand-written four additional points: If I may, Beth? 1. Meet Luke on his own terms, please. 2. Wait for him to reach for you before you reach. 3. Celebrate his successes, however small. 4. Please do not bring up that planet he invented, as I think he is ready to finally leave it behind. And HAVE FUN!
By the start of second grade in his old elementary school, Luke had exhausted the geography of Earth, having memorized all of the countries and their capitals, rivers, lakes, and mountain ranges, as well as the major industries of each region. Finally his teacher, Ms. Beale, hid the atlas above the wardrobe and offered Luke a worn encyclopedia of space from the class bookshelf. He read about the solar system — in particular Jupiter, with its many icy moons. For a time he found comets fascinating, their timetables like a train schedule, only with the enticing possibility of a collision. Later he focused on asteroids, then supernovas, then black holes. Finally he settled on exoplanets, worlds far from our own solar system. Many such planets are inhospitable and strange, like 55 Cancri e, which is made in large part of diamond, but a few appear similar enough to Earth to support life. Luke’s parents bought him two enormous atlases of the universe. Eventually his interest narrowed to a particular exoplanet called LK-32-C. He must have come across it somewhere on the Internet, Beth assumed. When she could find no mention of the place, she realized he had made the planet up. Luke spent entire afternoons at his desk in his bedroom, pinpointing LK-32-C’s precise location in the galaxy. His drawings were as exact and detailed as blueprints.
“LK-32-C,” Luke wrote in a research paper for school that should have been about amphibians, “is a gray planet covered in crumbly sand. On top of the sand grows bulla crudus, a knobby green plant which is soft and warm.” For every class project after that, he turned in a further investigation of LK-32-C. Such focused dedication to a made-up subject did not sit well with Ms. Beale.
When Luke began lagging behind his peers, Beth suggested to Ms. Beale that she use LK-32-C to reignite the boy’s interest in learning. Luke could graph the planet’s monthly rainfall during math lessons, or design a robot to carry out remote testing of the soil acidity.
“The problem here,” Ms. Beale said, “is that this planet of his isn’t a real planet. It doesn’t actually exist. You do realize that, don’t you?”
“The ponds of LK-32-C are salty,” Luke wrote. “The green knobs can be eaten in an emergency. They are rich in potassium.” In his drawings the planet’s double moons cast dueling shadows. Some animal rolled through the sand on silver-wheeled feet. Shy mammals he called “the figures,” which were two-legged and blue for some reason, ate rocks and possibly had once been human.
One afternoon Luke showed Beth how the figures danced. He swung his arms recklessly around his head as he jumped. It was a long dance. Beth lay back on his bed and watched him. He looked faraway and glad. “Stop staring at me,” he finally said.
The incidents began that winter.
Luke slammed his chair against another student, pinning her to the snack table. He refused to let the girl move, even after she began sobbing.
Luke threatened to shove a peanut into the mouth of a child who was allergic to peanuts. (“Maybe he didn’t understand she was allergic,” Beth suggested. “Oh, he knew,” Ms. Beale replied. “That boy keeps a file in his head on every student.”)
Luke punched a boy in the face after the boy said Luke’s new haircut had turned him into a girl.
Luke told a classmate somebody should shoot the president of the United States. (“I don’t think he’s serious about that,” Beth said. “You don’t think?” asked Ms. Beale.)
Luke threw a jacket over a student’s head during recess, cinched it closed, and asked the boy, “Should I go get a rope? Should I tie the rope around your neck?”
After this last incident the school secretary called: Could Beth and Tom both come in at some point — say, this afternoon at two o’clock — to meet with Mrs. Moreau, the school counselor? Beth explained that Tom was out of town on business. They scheduled the meeting for the following week.
That night for dinner Beth snapped the ends off half a pound of green beans and threw the beans into boiling, salted water. She seasoned several slabs of tofu and set them under the broiler until the edges blackened. This was the meal she usually made when Tom traveled. Ruby ate five bites, then wandered into the living room to play with her rainbow ponies. The ponies were about to go on an adventure in which they flew around the couches having fun. Luke remained at the table, stabbing his fork into the tofu, which he refused to eat. At present he would tolerate only three foods: tomatoes, toast, and yogurt.
“Luke,” Beth began, “the members of this family do not throw our coats over other people’s heads and threaten them.”
“Well, I do,” said Luke. Stab. Stab. Stab.
“I do not want you to throw coats on people’s heads. I don’t want you to use violent language either.”
“Why?” Stab. Stab.
“Because that sort of language scares other people. It makes other people afraid of you.”
“I want people to be afraid of me,” Luke said.
The following day Beth drove to their neighborhood library and checked out The Friendly Brontosaurus and several other children’s books about kindness that the librarian recommended. At home Luke glanced at the cover, which showed a gentle brontosaurus giving rides to his friends, and then hurled the book at the wall. “Dinosaurs never did that,” he said. Beth retrieved the book, lifted Ruby onto her lap, and read loudly to her while Luke worked at the kitchen table on a drawing of an astronaut who had been jettisoned from a rocket ship without his helmet. Surrounding the suffocating man was an exquisitely detailed map of a galaxy, every planet dark except for one, in the lower right corner of the page, which was haloed by swirls of metallic marker.
The phone rang. Beth put the book aside. “Nooooo,” Ruby moaned. They were at the part where the brontosaurus and his friends were planning a surprise party.
“ ‘Nooooooooooo,’ ” Luke mimicked from the kitchen. Lately he had begun creeping into his sister’s bedroom at night and pinching her arms to wake her.
Ruby grabbed Beth’s shirt, and Beth had to pry open Ruby’s hands in order to reach the phone.
It was Mrs. Moreau, the school counselor. “Is now a good time for a chat?” she asked.
“Not really,” Beth said.
Mrs. Moreau continued anyway. “I wanted you to know that the headmaster and I, along with your son’s teachers, reviewed Luke’s file at a meeting this morning. What a special boy you have! I’m seeing so many puzzles in him, so many locks and keys.”
“That meeting was supposed to be next week.”
“This was a different meeting,” explained Mrs. Moreau. At this meeting, she said, it had been recommended that Luke undergo both testing and therapy in order for him to remain enrolled at the school — so that everybody could be as safe as possible. “I want to assure you,” Mrs. Moreau said, “that no one is trying to get rid of your son.”
Beth attempted to get Luke to show them around the campus at Abbot Academy. “I want to see the labyrinth again,” she said. “The one next to your dorm — I mean, your home. The boy who showed us around earlier told me the labyrinth was his favorite place because it gave his brain a rest. He didn’t have to think about where to go for once. He just followed the path. Do you ever go there in the morning before your classes?”
Luke did not take them to the labyrinth. Instead he led them in the opposite direction, to a woodpile in a clearing, where he turned his back to them and proceeded to split wood with a red axe. The muscles of his back contracted, and the axe balanced briefly above his head before Luke brought it down, grunting when the blade hit the log. Firewood littered the clearing, enough to last anybody for months.
“This is really nice,” Tom said, “but how about we move on, buddy?”
He repeated this suggestion four times before Luke threw the axe into the dirt.
Beth reached for Tom’s hand. Last year she had brought up the idea of a separation. Luke’s needs had become exhausting, swallowing up all that was good in their marriage. “We’re like two miserable roommates living in a closet,” she’d said. “Doesn’t something need to change?”
Tom had told her that she worried too much. “So things have to be different between us for a while. Eventually you and I will get back to what we used to have. The dinner conversations. The Sunday mornings in bed. OK? We’ll get back to where we were.”
“But what if we can’t get back there?” she had asked.
“Then we’ll find somewhere else to go,” Tom had said, his hand in her hair.
Luke brought them to the barn. A vinyl banner hung from its eaves: WE WILL NOT GIVE UP ON YOU!
“Do you get to take care of the animals, Luke?” Beth asked. Beside the barn was a hutch that housed rabbits, all white with floppy ears. Luke unhooked the latch and scooped a rabbit into his arms. Beth asked whether he was supposed to be doing that. In response Luke threw the rabbit at her. Somehow she managed to catch the creature, and she cradled it like a baby, feeling its panicked heart beneath the fur. Then the rabbit kicked its hind legs and leapt from her arms. “I don’t think it wants to be held right now,” she said.
Luke grabbed a ratty toothbrush from a bench, lifted the animal into his lap, and stroked the bristles along its back. The rabbit calmed down. Why had Beth never thought of buying him a pet?
“They never yell,” Luke said.
“Who?” Beth asked.
“Not even when I threw the chair out the window.”
“Why did you throw a chair out of a window?” asked Tom.
Luke continued to stroke the rabbit’s fur. “They never hit me,” Luke said. “They take away points, but then you get the points back. They think I’m doing a good job.”
“Are you doing a good job?” Beth asked.
“They don’t ask me questions.”
After the conversation with the elementary-school counselor, Luke’s name was placed on a waiting list at a pediatric psychiatry clinic.
“When will you be calling?” Beth asked the intake counselor.
The counselor sighed. “Honey, it’s a long list.”
In the interim Luke’s interest in LK-32-C deepened. “This is how they sing on that planet,” he told Beth. “It isn’t the actual song, because that can’t be written down, but I know what it sounds like.” He composed the music on her tablet. Every song was the same: a choir of male voices repeating vowel sounds that reverberated as if they were in a cave. Luke listened incessantly to these songs. He listened to them in the morning during his breakfast of dry, crustless toast and a tomato. He insisted on listening to them in the car every day on the drive to school.
“No!” Ruby would cry in protest.
“We’ll listen to Annie another time,” Beth promised her, though they never did. If Beth neglected to immediately plug the tablet into the car stereo, Luke kicked the back of the driver’s seat with all his might or grabbed Ruby’s hair. Once, he yanked hard enough that strands of hair came out in his fist.
Having detailed LK-32-C’s place in the galaxy and the creatures that lived there, Luke now mapped the entire planet, sketching the prominent landscape features: the mountain chain that ran along a ragged coastline, the scattering of shallow ponds. He drew numerous maps of a teardrop-shaped lake and the area surrounding it. He drew diagrams of the transport ship that would one day bring him to LK-32-C and of the tent in which he would live and of the supplies in his storage trunks.
“I’d like to go there with you,” Beth said. “Is there room?”
“You can’t go with me,” Luke said.
“Well, I think I might,” Beth said. “I’m thinking I can hide in a storage trunk.”
“No.” Luke drew the planet’s wide plateaus and the unmoving surface of the water at the lake’s center. He diagramed the sky at night, including its two moons and a maze of constellations, the largest of which resembled a ship; at the edge of its rudder he marked a star — our sun, around which Beth imagined a minuscule Earth circling.
While documenting LK-32-C, Luke looked happy — or, at least, he did not look in that moment as if he wanted to destroy anything. Beth bought him art supplies and encouraged him to stay in his room. She served him dinner on a tray at his desk. Most children believe in all sorts of ridiculous things, she told herself. Why shouldn’t her child be allowed to believe in this? Luke could fill a sketch pad with drawings in two days. LK-32-C’s supporting materials soon filled several bankers boxes in his closet.
That spring the intake counselor from the clinic called to say there had been a cancellation. “You can’t imagine how lucky you are,” she told Beth. The tests and interviews took up an entire Friday, and by the following week Luke had a diagnosis, which his parents welcomed with relief. An identifiable problem usually means identifiable solutions.
“Look, this is not some death sentence I’m handing you,” the psychiatrist told them. “Many doctors, myself included, believe that your son’s condition can be managed under the right conditions.” The psychiatrist tapped his pen on the sheet of paper that contained his conclusions. He circled the box labeled “social,” which had arrows coming out of it, connecting it to other boxes. Apparently more arrows were needed. “The worst thing you can do,” he said, “is to let your child retreat from the world and everybody in it. Because that’s what these children long to do — live in their own little universes where they exert total control and make up all the rules. You have to encourage your son to remain a social being. You have to create the social conditions in which he will thrive.”
Beth purchased every book the psychiatrist recommended and stacked them neatly on her nightstand. At the bottom of the stack she placed the more technical books that dealt with the science of the brain. At the top she put the books that contained the true stories of heroic parents who had cured their kids. Here is the main lesson that Beth learned from such books: that any parent of a child like Luke — any good parent, that is — must approach each idea, each therapy, with an open mind. You never knew what might work for your particular son or daughter.
In the spirit of such open-mindedness Beth and Tom embraced applied behavioral analysis; then behavioral observation, reinforcement, and prompting; then visual schedules; then checklists. They tried the diet that many books recommended, though Luke shrieked when he was no longer allowed to eat his yogurt because the casein in it might be the cause of his problems. They — or, rather, Beth, as Tom was usually working — made sensory boxes filled with beans and rice and rocks and placed them in a corner of the living room. She encouraged Luke to wear ear protection when Ruby was around, to mute his sister’s laughter and singing, which drove him to act out. Beth attempted to organize playdates for Luke, though the other parents generally did not return her calls or said they were busy. She bought Luke a weighted blanket, a plastic necklace he could chew if he got nervous, a vibrating pillow. For herself she purchased a notebook with cheerful yellow flowers on the cover, and in it she recorded daily observations of her son, as if she were a scientist.
Day eight of vitamin therapy. Had to shove pills down throat. He screamed until his voice went. Peed once in pants. Threw ball repeatedly at R.’s head. He slept well.
Day nine of vitamin therapy. L. screamed for half an hour, then broke rocking chair in his room. I shut the door to his room. His teacher has been asking what’s wrong with his throat. Refused to go to sleep. Banged on my door until 2 AM.
Not once on the morning of Abbot Academy’s Fall Jamboree had Luke brought up LK-32-C. The fictional planet had been, for Beth, a connection to Luke — her only connection? — but according to the academy’s therapist, it was time to live in reality and let such fantasies go. After they left the barn, Luke took them into the woods, where an iron gong hung from a log frame. Luke grabbed a stout stick from the ground and banged the gong a dozen times. The sound reverberated in Beth’s chest as if someone were shaking her.
“My turn,” Beth said, intending to demonstrate how one could hit a gong delicately, creating a more beautiful sound, but Luke had already lost interest and gone running down the trail. They caught up with him at a pond, where he pointed to the algae as if there were something meaningful hidden in its green expanse. He squatted in the mud. Beth crouched there, too, pretending not to care about the muck ruining her shoes or the rotten smell of the water. Tom stood somewhere behind them. A pair of empty canoes bobbed beside the dock.
“So, how are you doing, Luke?” Beth asked. Luke continued staring at the surface of the pond. She tried to follow his gaze, but all she could see was a jumble of dead logs in the shallows. She repeated her question, louder this time.
“That is the stupidest question I have ever heard,” Luke said, his fingers fidgeting as if casting a spell.
“Well, Luke, this is what mothers do when their sons go away,” Beth explained, her voice sharper than she intended. “They ask questions.”
She had a long list of questions in her head, a list that kept her awake at night, because it was impossible to get them out of her mind. Now she asked Luke whether he had been in a canoe yet, and did they ever have campfires? Did he like campfires, or did the smoke bother him? What was his favorite meal so far? She couldn’t stop, despite the fact that Luke was curling in on himself, digging his fingernails into his scalp.
“Beth,” Tom said, as if speaking her name would accomplish something.
She asked Luke what was the best and the worst thing about his new school and what he missed most from home.
“You lied,” Luke said.
There was a flash of movement in the pond, a frog leaping from one of the logs. Beth saw only the shadow of it beneath the water.
“Lied about what?” Tom asked.
Beth was silent. Silence was OK, too, a therapist had once told her. “Silence is also a valid connection,” this kindhearted woman with the weepy eyes had insisted, not because it was true — it wasn’t — but because Beth and the therapist had been sitting in silence for such a long time, as Beth did not want to say out loud how she’d begun to hit Luke when her temper flared. She couldn’t think of what else to say.
“I think I would be a better person if I had not been given this child,” she finally told the therapist.
“You wouldn’t believe how many mothers think that,” the therapist said.
By the summer before Luke’s third-grade year at the elementary school, the people in distant orbit around Beth and Tom’s life — Beth’s old friends; her two brothers, who lived elsewhere; her mother, who preferred not to visit but sent encouraging notes — believed Luke had improved. What a quick recovery! A miracle! They told Beth how happy they were for her, praising the wonders of good therapists.
In fact, nothing had gotten better. Beth had simply stopped telling them about the things her son continued to do, such as the comic he drew in which Beth became lost in some foreign landscape until a wolf-like animal loped along and bit off her head.
“Why did the wolf do that?” she asked Luke, pointing to the panel where the animal was devouring her face.
“He’s not a wolf,” Luke said. “He’s going to get sick after swallowing your hair.”
It required too much energy to edit her day into a story that could be spoken aloud — and, besides, stories about parenthood were supposed to be lighthearted.
Beth was keeping a list of Luke’s behaviors for their family therapist, such as the time Luke had kicked his sister while the younger child was napping. Or when he’d trapped a neighborhood girl in their garage. Glancing at the list, Tom said, “You’re making our son sound deranged.” Really there was more she hadn’t recorded, and none of it made Luke or them look good. Luke was refusing to remain in his bed at night. “What are we supposed to do, strap him down?” Tom asked. “What do you use to strap down a kid, a belt?” Neither of them wished to be the sort of parents who did that. But the moment the lights were off, Luke stormed around his room, knocking heavy objects to the floor. He stood outside the master bedroom and pummeled the door, yelling, “Emergency!” He turned on the faucet in every bathroom. Finally she or Tom, or sometimes both, would drag Luke back to his room and hold the door shut from the other side so he couldn’t get out. Luke’s bedroom door was cracked from the boy’s repeated kicks.
The family therapist continued trying to construct a narrative of hope, but Beth kept bringing her glum, unending list to their weekly sessions. Finally the therapist ordered Beth to throw the list away.
“You’re the one who told me to take notes,” Beth reminded her.
The therapist shook her head. “We’re done with notes. I want you to spend your energy on creating positive experiences with your son. Explore his interests. Make them your own.”
Luke’s only real interest was LK-32-C. Recently the planet had undergone a change. It seemed to be dying — or, at least, its inhabitants were dying off, leaving behind a skeletal world devoid of color. Luke made a chart listing all the creatures that had once existed in the planet’s ponds and lakes. There were asterisks next to every name on the list, indicating they were extinct. He made another chart for the birds that were gone.
“It sounds like such a lonely place,” Beth said.
“You’re wrong,” said Luke. The pictures he drew of the planet’s surface now consisted of three or four intersecting lines, alarming in their bleakness, especially if Beth tried to imagine herself or anyone else living between or on top of them.
“Luke, where did all the living things on your planet go?” Beth asked one afternoon in his dim bedroom. The blinds were drawn, and only the closet light was on.
“They weren’t supposed to be there,” he said.
“Does it look like this all the time now?” she asked, pointing to the drawing, a sheet of paper colored entirely black.
“Only to people like you,” he said.
The next day Beth told Luke that LK-32-C wasn’t real, and the whole charade had gone on too long, and she was tired of it.
“I’m not stupid,” Luke said, climbing into his bed.
“There are a million actual places in the universe,” she said. “Some of them might even have alien beings walking around. Can’t we talk about one of those places?”
Luke pulled his weighted blanket over his shoulders and faced the wall as if she were no longer there.
Lunch was ready back at the quad: platters of hamburgers, corn, and potato salad, with lemonade to drink and stewed peaches for dessert. Tom, Beth, and Luke sat at a picnic table in the sun with another boy and his parents. “Is this a friend of yours?” Beth asked Luke. He threw his corn on the ground. “Pick up the corn, Luke,” Beth said. He did not pick up the corn, so she did. It was covered in dirt. She wrapped the corn in a napkin. The fathers shook hands across the table and were soon comparing the incompetence of management at their respective workplaces while the two women discussed upcoming travel plans.
“It’s been years since we’ve vacationed anywhere,” the other mom confessed. “Too much unpredictability. And the planes. Whew! I said, Never again. But we’re planning a grand tour of Europe in the spring, just the two of us. I intend to complain nonstop about other people’s children.”
The boys did not look at each other. Luke studied the crumbs on the edge of his plate. The other boy watched the trees at the far end of the quad. The branches weren’t even moving, as there was no wind. The mother leaned toward her son, bringing her face in front of his. “I like how you’re using silverware today for lunch, Ethan,” she said. Ethan grasped his fork limply in his hand but wasn’t exactly eating. “You’re also doing a good job of listening. I can see you’re working hard on your listening.”
Beth recognized this parenting approach: unending praise. She had tried it briefly the previous year. In addition to making her sound ridiculous in public, it had failed. “Anyone in need of peaches?” she asked, rising from the table.
In line for dessert Beth found herself standing behind the school’s headmaster, a purposeful young man who had led Luke’s intake interview the previous spring. He greeted her like an old friend and wore a T-shirt that read: COMPLIANCE IS NOT MY GOAL!
“And how are you finding Luke’s progress? Amazing, right?”
“Actually,” Beth said, “I thought he would be farther along than he is.”
“You wouldn’t believe how many parents say that to me in their child’s first year. Everyone expects us to be magicians! But we don’t use magic here. We use hard work, and hard work takes time.”
“I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like my child to be able to use a fork and respond to simple questions.”
“This isn’t easy for you,” the headmaster said. He was a tall man who had to look down to meet Beth’s eyes. “No parent imagines their role will be so hands-off. But I think children like your son are often happier without active parental involvement. My God, you should hear Luke laugh some days — like he’s never really laughed before. It seems to me there’s all this joy stuck behind this dam inside of him, and we have to break down that dam somehow and let it out.”
At the intake interview the headmaster had asked Beth and Tom what they loved most about their son.
“Of course I love him,” Beth had replied.
“That wasn’t my question,” the headmaster had said.
Now he reached out to squeeze Beth’s hand. “Come on. It’ll be OK. What a day, right? And, let me tell you, you have one heck of a treat in store when you hear what Luke does at the afternoon performance. Just you wait.”
The first dozen times Beth brought up the idea of boarding school, Luke swore he would never go. (Beth had already sent in the paperwork and the deposit.) She showed him a brochure with a photograph of boys his age and a little older gathered around a campfire and sharpening their marshmallow-roasting sticks and another photo of three boys in a canoe, the one in front holding a fish. She told him about Abbot Academy’s two ponds, and the farm with the horses, and how wild turkeys wandered through the surrounding woods. They watched an online video in which a student said, “This school has changed me into a different and better person.”
Luke said if she tried to make him go, he would lock himself in his bedroom.
“The locks are on the outside of your door now,” Beth reminded him.
“Then I will lock you and Dad in my room,” Luke said.
“Then Dad and I will climb out the window and slide down the drainpipe and come find you.”
Tom had not wanted to send their son away, believing they could handle him — that it was their job to handle him. But, then, he was so rarely home.
Beth noticed a wet spot spreading across the front of Luke’s pants. “Did you just pee on yourself?”
“I will take my bike and ride down the train tracks in the direction of an oncoming train,” Luke said.
Clearly a different approach was needed.
“Now hear me out,” said Beth a few days later. “What if I told you that this new school will let you study whatever you want? What if—” She had his attention now. He was actually looking at her, watching her lips. “What if the teachers at Abbot Academy want to hear about LK-32-C?” She had shown them his sketches, she said, and they were very interested. They thought he might be on the verge of an important discovery.
On the first of August Beth loaded up the van with two trunks, three bags, and six bankers boxes from Luke’s closet, and the two of them headed for New Hampshire. Tom didn’t come, having offered to stay behind and look after Ruby. “I bet it’s going to be so nice to tell everybody about that planet of yours,” Beth said as they pulled off the toll road, her voice chipper, almost shrill. “They have tools there to help you with your research. Powerful telescopes, spectrographs — that sort of thing.” The only time Luke had spoken in the previous hour had been to say he needed to change his pants again. The scenery soon grew repetitive: endless impenetrable woods. Luke had jammed himself against the passenger door and was studying the seam of his right sock. “I’ll bet the other kids at this school will want to hear all about LK-32-C’s double moons.”
“What about the moons?”
“I don’t know. How does it feel to have two moons above you? Maybe one day, after you finish your research, you can travel to LK-32-C and see the moons for yourself. I could come, too. We could live there together.”
The six boxes in the trunk contained all the information Luke had about LK-32-C, including his maps of the landing site where he would be set down by the transport ship, the inventory sheets of his supplies, graphs of the annual rainfall and charts that registered the rare hours of sunlight. It was against the rules at Abbot for the child to bring the objects of his obsession, but to Beth those boxes seemed necessary for Luke’s well-being.
The dorm that would become Luke’s new home sat on the south end of the school grounds, connected to the other buildings by a path of crushed gray stone. From the porch you could see one of the two ponds, along with a pier where a boy dropped a fishing line into the water. Beth pointed out the boy, the pier, the pond.
“Does the pond have shadows in it?” Luke asked.
“What kind of shadows?” Beth asked. “Like, fish shadows?”
Luke did not want to walk down the hill to see the pond.
Beth handed her son’s belongings to a young man who introduced himself to Luke but not to her.
“You can call me John, or Mr. John,” he said. “Whatever you’re most comfortable with.” He was the “house dad.” When he walked her child upstairs to see what was to be Luke’s bedroom, Beth was not invited in past the front doorway. From what she could view of the interior, the house was uncluttered. Some would have called it sterile.
Mr. John returned to inspect the contents of Luke’s trunks and bags before he allowed an assistant to carry them upstairs, where Luke remained. When Mr. John came to the boxes that held Luke’s LK-32-C documents, he sorted through the papers for several minutes, then asked, “Now, what is this?”
“They’re papers my son needs,” Beth said quietly.
John allowed the lid of the box to fall shut.
“They’re about a place he made up,” she explained. “A planet that’s necessary to him.” She did not mention this was the first of several such boxes.
Mr. John pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands. “You know what?” he said to Beth. “Let me get someone to give you a tour of our school.”
While she was on the tour, which was led by a boy who stared at his feet while he spoke, the house dad loaded all the LK-32-C data, every box of it, back into Beth’s van.
Luke did not come downstairs to say goodbye. Instead Beth said goodbye to Mr. John.
“Do you need a hug?” he asked.
She wanted to say no, of course not; she did not need a hug from the stranger who was poised to replace her so effortlessly. But she found herself opening her arms and crying against his chest, his shirt already damp there, either from sweat or from the tears of the other mothers who had rested their heads in the same place.
A month into the first semester Beth received an envelope addressed to her in her son’s precise handwriting. “What’s wrong?” Ruby asked, seeing Beth’s face. All the parents had been told not to expect ongoing communication from their child while he was attending Abbot Academy. The school’s headmaster had gone so far as to suggest that the parents imagine their children were leaving for another, better world, one so distant that contact would be impossible. Yet here was this letter. Ignoring Ruby, Beth carried the envelope into the kitchen and tore it open. Inside was a blank sheet of paper folded neatly into thirds.
Beth called the school. The first woman she spoke to said, “It sounds to me as if your child wanted to send you a blank piece of paper.”
“Could I talk to someone there other than you, please?” Beth said. She was transferred to the school therapist, who assured Beth that a blank sheet of paper was meaningful in its own way, like a coded message.
Now she merely had to figure out the code.
Dishes from the previous night’s dinner filled the sink, and Beth turned the water on hot enough to scald her fingers as she told the school therapist how, the previous summer, Luke’s psychiatrist had recommended they medicate the boy. She and Tom had refused to discuss it at the time, but now she wondered if they should.
The therapist laughed and said she never viewed a child as damaged goods that needed to be “fixed” with medicine. Instead of putting a child into a drugged stupor and stuffing him into a predetermined mold, they were helping him build a life in which he could thrive. “Consider a child with a singular obsession, like yours. This may surprise you, Beth, but practically every one of our students, by the time he’s sent to us, is so fixated on something that he’s unable to interact properly with his surroundings. That’s no way to live.”
Beth scrubbed the plates vigorously, splashing droplets of sudsy water onto the tile. When Ruby had been a baby, Beth had placed her right there on the kitchen floor, on a clean blanket in a patch of sunlight, and then left the room to use the toilet. When she’d returned, Luke had been standing beside his sister with his right leg pulled back as if about to kick her. And then he had kicked his sister in the head. He’d been wearing his dress shoes, as if going to a birthday party.
The therapist continued: “You’d be surprised how many of these kids, with a little nudging in the school environment, will choose new and healthier interests on their own. Of course, their interests might not run as deep, but we’ve found that sort of extreme depth to be inappropriate for a child Luke’s age and with his disabilities.”
Beth’s fingers were red and irritated from the heat of the water. Luke had kicked the baby twice before she could reach him. She’d yanked him away by the arm more roughly than was necessary, as if she’d wished to hurt him in return. Afterward, howling and fussy, Ruby had spiked a fever, and Beth had taken her to the doctor’s office, where she’d told the nurse exactly what her son had done. The nurse had given Beth an accusatory glare.
“Sometimes,” the therapist went on, “it seems the parents are as interested in the obsession as the student. In certain cases an obsession can create this artificial sense of connection.” Until this point the therapist’s voice had been amicable and pleasant, as if they were two old friends chatting about their kids, but here her words took on a tone of reproach. “Once you remove the parents from the equation, the child can move on and find his appropriate place in this world. Do you understand what I’m saying? Your son is going to be fine, Beth. Trust me.”
The performance took place after lunch beneath the big white tent. Beth and Tom sat in the final row of folding chairs. Pale party streamers hung from the tent poles and twisted in the breeze.
The staff presented their talents first. The headmaster told a story using puppets about a wolf who went around destroying things and eating children. The wolf, he explained, was a metaphor for the kind of adults who did not understand these boys or accept their gifts. Other teachers strummed guitars or juggled or led the children in silent meditation. Luke’s house dad shouted from the podium, to rousing applause, “We have taken off our braces and our casts, so we are free to grow into the magnificent people we were born to be!”
This went on for at least an hour.
The student portion of the program followed. A boy read an acrostic poem he’d written about horses: “H is for horses. / O is for original. / R is for real. . . .” Another boy instructed the audience to write down the Pledge of Allegiance, then cross out every third word and write that word again, and each time the boy clapped his hands, they had to tap their pencil on the paper. This was followed by a break-dancing routine, after which Luke stood up from his chair in the second row, turned to face the side of the tent, away from the audience, and began to sing.
It was a song Beth didn’t know, rhythmic and tribal sounding and seemingly wordless, perhaps a fragment of music leftover from LK-32-C. At first he stumbled over almost every note, and she hoped the song would end soon, for his sake. He should not have been allowed to perform a solo. What was wrong with these people? But then he reached the refrain and found his pitch, and his voice grew stronger until it filled the tent. No one in the audience was moving, it seemed. Tom grabbed Beth’s hand and held on to it. Luke’s voice became full-bodied, sweet, rich with sadness, yes, but also hope. Beth sat very still, worried the song would end if she did so much as shift her weight in her chair. Though at no point did Luke look in her direction, she believed his voice to be seeking her out. When his voice found her, its sound enveloped her, as if he had thrown his arms around her neck, something she couldn’t remember him ever doing. She imagined the warmth of his skin against hers.
The headmaster, in line at the dessert table, had assured Beth that every day Luke was improving in small yet substantial ways. Then he had placed a hand on her arm, an unwelcome weight. “It takes a lot of courage to admit when help is needed,” he said. “I think Luke could have, at some point, harmed himself or someone else irreversibly. But I don’t think he is on that path anymore.” The headmaster’s voice was so thick with affection that at first she thought, ridiculously, he was hitting on her. But no, of course not. It was love for Luke she was hearing.
Luke’s song was long — probably longer than it was supposed to be — but it had to end, because that is what songs do: they end.
When the talent show was over, all the boys took a bow, and Luke filed out of the tent with his schoolmates. The applause was so loud that they immediately turned around and returned to the stage. Luke was the only boy who did not come back. Perhaps he needed something from his room, Tom offered. Around them the other parents were shaking their children’s hands or dragging a protesting child into a hug. Some mothers cried into their boys’ hair. While those other parents left, Tom and Beth continued to wait beside the podium. Finally Luke’s house dad appeared and told them it was time to go home. “Go on, get out of here! Have fun!” He assured them he was perfectly capable of taking it from here.
“I wanted to tell Luke goodbye,” Beth said. “Can’t I tell my own son goodbye?”
“Don’t you worry about that. There’s an ice-cream party going on at the main hall, and I don’t think wild horses could drag your little guy away right now. Luke has figured out thirty-seven unique topping combinations so far. He made a chart, and, let me tell you, when the charts come out, you know it is going to get wild.” The house dad grinned. He had such tiny, perfect teeth. “Look, I’ll tell him goodbye for you, if you want.”
Beth said that would be nice.
“Hug?” he offered, opening his arms.
“Of course,” Beth replied. The hug this time was brief. Luke’s house dad smelled like Old Spice and sunscreen. She imagined she was hugging Luke. Though this man was nothing like her son, he would have to do.
Beth followed Tom across the quad to their car. Some of the trees they passed were on the verge of changing. Behind her, Beth could hear the braying of horses and the occasional sound of a boy’s laughter. Was it Luke’s? Would she even recognize it if it was?
Tom reached for her hand. Their car was the last one in the lot.
She would have left with Luke for LK-32-C without a thought, had they found a way to go.