A limousine pulled up the long gravel driveway of our school. We heard it coming so slowly we had time to jump down from our bunks and crowd into the front window of the upstairs hallway before the thin, ugly boy inside got out. As soon as we laid eyes on him, we could see the toilet stall he would become. It was in him already, in place of a normal skeleton.
He stepped onto the gravel, unsteady on his feet, and tugged at the dress of a woman still in the limo. He tugged until he fell backward with a piece of black cloth in his fist.
Then the door closed and the limo turned around.
You’re so dead, we thought.
The boy walked toward us wearing a backpack and carrying a paper bag in the same hand as the black cloth while the limo hurried away, crushing a shrub: The woman inside must have yelled for the driver to hurry. We watched the boy until he disappeared under the windows and through the front door.
It was very quiet in our school, where we’d already been for a year, the four best swimmers in the country for our age group, which is twelve through fourteen. The boys from St. Theresa’s think they’re better, but at the swim meet this winter they’ll have to face the truth.
It was a Sunday, so we had the day off, since we’d taken our weekly trip to Avonlea yesterday, on what the Headmaster calls our Supply Run, though we never get any supplies except Reese’s.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lying in our bunks, watching the new boy creep into the room and peel a sleeping bag from the supply closet and set it up on the floor, since there were only two bunk beds, four bunks. We lay very still, our blankets pulled up to just beneath our eyes, watching him unball socks and underwear from his backpack and hold out his toothbrush, looking for a safe place to put it before shrugging and laying it on the floor with the bristles facing up.
Then he got in his sleeping bag and closed his eyes, clutching the black cloth he’d torn from the woman’s dress. We could only assume she was his mother.
He wasn’t sleeping, and we knew he wouldn’t sleep all night, sensing, as he must have by then, that it was not safe for him here and never would be.
Dinner was the five of us and our four usual teachers —math, chemistry, English/history, and Latin —plus a new one, whose role was not defined. We didn’t even bother catching his name. All we heard the Headmaster say was, “Because we now have a fifth student, we have a fifth teacher now as well.” The new boy and the new teacher sat at a table that must’ve been wheeled in just for them this afternoon.
When we were finished, we went up to bed without the usual hour spent by the fire with the Headmaster, a blanket over his lap as he sipped brandy and told us how he’d hunted in the surrounding woods with his father when he was our age and this was his house. The new boy was already in his sleeping bag by the time we’d finished brushing our teeth, as if he knew to avoid the upstairs bathroom where we’d all just been.
But in the morning there was no avoiding it, because we had to shower before getting in the pool.
We stumbled in at six, the four of us peeing in the four urinals on the same side as the sinks while the new boy went into the second of four stalls, across from us, and closed the door. We ran into the showers, rinsing off for as long as we could bear the water at its coldest. He was still in the stall when we got out, toweled off, and lined up for the scale, where we weighed ourselves each morning and reported our findings to the Headmaster before jumping in the pool.
So that stall will be the one for him, we thought, taking turns on the scale. He’s chosen it. Nice to know what you really are inside, we thought, registering our weights as around a hundred and twenty pounds apiece.
On the way down the cold tiled hallway, we closed our eyes and pictured dipping his skull in the pool, the bluish water turning orange as his brain shrunk to the size of a filbert. We straightened up as we came under the Headmaster’s gaze, reporting our weights one by one and jumping in, not waiting for the new boy to follow.
We swam 1000 yards crawl, 1000 breaststroke, 1000 butterfly. The new boy was an okay swimmer, not terrible but nothing like us. Not good enough to get in here without a connection, we thought, as we turned over to do 1000 more yards crawl before breakfast and the start of the day’s lessons.
The week passed normally, us going to our classes and coming back to our bunks, stepping over the sleeping bag and toothbrush on the floor like they were infected. We kept running into the fifth teacher in the hallways on the ground floor, but he looked past us, embarrassed to be seen. Since he seemed basically useless here, we were embarrassed for him.
The new boy spent a lot of time in the bathroom, like he was more ready for what was coming than we were. Although there was something enjoyable about keeping him waiting, we decided to get everything we needed on our next Saturday Supply Run in Avonlea.
The Headmaster drove us there in his van and let us out saying, “Enjoy yourselves buying comics and gum,” as he did every week. Then he went wherever he goes while we shop, telling us to meet him back at the van at 4:30 on the dot.
Our first stop was CVS. The new boy skulked behind us, reeking his usual toilet stall sweat, fingering the deodorants without buying any, wiping his nose with the strip of black cloth he carried everywhere. As he watched us gather the materials that would end him, he couldn’t keep from telling some story he’d heard or read about a white girl who went shopping in town with her slave nanny in the Old South, where the streets were all muddy and there were just planks set down for people to walk on, most of these trampled under so you couldn’t tell where they led, and this girl ran into someone she knew, or her parents knew, and there was something about an affair going on, like it revealed that her mom was upstairs in town with a man who wasn’t her dad, or vice versa, or maybe the girl herself got molested by an older friend of the family, or an escaped slave, or something, but it resulted in the black nanny being caught without the girl she was supposed to be watching outside the dry goods store, and she was taken back to the plantation tied up in the cargo hold of the carriage and burned alive on the patio before dinner.
By the time he’d finished telling this story, which was the only thing he’d ever said to us, we’d gathered everything we would need, including bleach, Drano, and a value pack of Krazy Glue, and were moving on to the art supplies store, where we’d have to spend the rest of our allowance to buy enough X-Acto knives and razor wire to finish the job.
At 4:30, we were leaning against the Headmaster’s van eating Reese’s with everything we’d just bought in our backpacks, while the new boy followed pigeons around the fountain in the park. The Headmaster showed up exactly on time, red-faced and happy, though something sad came over him when he saw the new boy frolicking alone like an idiot.
We unpacked our supplies when we got back, hiding the knives and wire in our sheets and the chemicals under the sink in the upstairs bathroom where, come Monday morning, they would be ready.
We didn’t usually bother with this kind of thing, but, given the circumstances and how badly we’d slept, we decided to spend part of Sunday morning in the chapel. The new boy followed us in. We sat in the pews and looked at the statues and paintings and organ pipes, and the giant tapestry of the Annunciation, trying to get our thoughts in order. We felt kind of lazy about what we were going to do, like it was just putting the finishing touches on a process that had started a long time ago. But still, we knew that doing it for real would change us in some way. So we prayed a little, for forgiveness or understanding or whatever we could get.
The new boy just sat there reeking and chewing his cloth, looking at the people and angels in the tapestry like he knew them vaguely but had nothing to tell or ask them now.
Janitor Pete came in at noon and kicked us out, saying he needed to dust the statues in peace.
For lunch and again for dinner, we ate steak tips in the dining hall while the new boy and the fifth teacher sat alone at their table in the corner. Then it was bedtime. We lay in bed all night picturing the world after he was gone, the same as the world before he arrived but a little more perfect.
When the Headmaster’s voice came over the loudspeaker on Monday morning chanting, “The sun! The sun! The sun, it shines on everyone!” we looked at each other and confirmed that it was time.
We gathered our X-Acto knives and razor wire from our sheets and climbed down with them in our underwear. In the bathroom, we arranged them on the counter and gathered our chemicals from under the sink. The new boy was already in the stall across from us, naked with the door unlocked like he’d heard it calling him home and was ready to go. Maybe he’d dreamed of the black limo coming back up the driveway, his mother opening the door and whispering, “Get in.”
As he got in, he’d hand her back the piece of black cloth like a ticket he’d purchased at a kiosk.
We unscrewed the bottles and rushed him, kicking the stall door open and closing our eyes as we soaked him in bleach and mildew-dissolver and Drano, blinding him and beginning to burn his hair and melt away the skin surrounding his mouth, so we could see his teeth clenched in terror.
When we’d softened him up as much as we could, we dove in with the knives, taking turns. We sheared the skin from his head, tearing it around the eyes, and then cut clean, straight flaps around his shoulders and down his chest, pulling it off in as few sheets as possible. These we hung over the edge of the stall to dry while we set to work breaking up his muscle-covered skeleton with our feet. We tore out his belly and stuffed it in the toilet, and then broke up his ribs and cracked his leg bones and stuffed those in too. We tore the skin from the soles of his feet and hung that next to the other skin to dry.
When everything that fit was stuffed in the toilet, clogging it to just under its seat, we got out the Krazy Glue from the value pack under the sink and started sticking his skin to the edges of the stall. We covered the door, the walls, the floor tiles, even the lock. Some parts had hair, others had freckles, one had a birthmark.
But mostly the covering was smooth and almost see-through because we stretched it really tight. We had the feeling that we had helped both the boy and the stall become what they were always meant to be.
Looking into the toilet bowl, we saw that one of his skinned hands was still clutching the piece of black cloth. We tried to rip it out, but the hand closed more tightly around it the harder we pulled, so we left it alone.
Out of habit we started toward the showers to clean off before jumping in the pool, but at the last second we decided not to. It felt right to dive in covered in him, turning the water orange. When we stepped on the scale, we found we all weighed a pound more than we had yesterday.
The Headmaster stood by the edge of the pool with his eyes closed, breathing out against his knuckles, trying to keep himself from knowing what he must’ve already known. He certainly didn’t ask where the new boy was.
We swam and ate and did everything else as usual that day and slept in our bunks that night without looking at the new boy’s sleeping bag, all of us dreaming of the ends of our own lives, which felt a very long way off but still we knew they were coming. We only hoped someone would take as much care with us as we had with him.
The next morning, we woke up before the Headmaster’s call and ran through the bathroom into the pool without showering again. We all peed in the water, not ready to linger over the urinals with the new boy watching our backs from the stall behind us. We knew this would be our morning routine from now on, and that it would be alright.
All that was different at mealtimes was that the fifth teacher was gone. The dusty back table where he’d sat was empty, and the Headmaster and the four regular teachers sat in a huddle, their backs to us, until it was time for class or time for bed. Then they got slowly to their feet, like they were drunk, and we followed.
In Latin, we learned the vocative case, which is used for yelling at people, and in history we studied the British East India Company and the Opium Wars. Things went on like this, our classes as boring as ever, our swimming improving each time we practiced, working toward the big meet against St. Teresa’s at the very end of December.
I was living with my parents in Milford, NY, drawing unemployment from the town and using my time to stew about my loans and ask myself why I’d bothered getting a Master’s in education when there was nothing in particular I wanted to do with it that I couldn’t have done before, if only I’d had the drive. Grad school had seemed like a way forward, and maybe it had been, but now I needed a way forward again and couldn’t see any.
I was qualified to teach English at any level above sixth grade and below college, but my online job search had so far yielded nothing but maybes. And a lot of porn. My parents said I should call my brother who was a production assistant on The Biggest Loser in Burbank and ask if I could stay with him until I thought of or got into something out there.
Honestly, if the Headmaster hadn’t called, I might have.
I was up in my room when he did, about four p.m. on a Thursday in late September, going through my CD collection and realizing how uneven my ratio of cases to discs had become.
My cell lit up with an unknown caller.
The Headmaster confirmed that he had the right number, then introduced himself and his school and said he had an unexpected opening. A teacher of his had left abruptly, for personal reasons, and now he was in a bind. He said he’d found my name in a database of recently certified English teachers able to move on short notice, and asked if this was true.
I said it was.
He asked if I was discreet, and I said I was, making an assumption about myself I’d never before had occasion to make.
He said he’d text me the address and that I could come up on Sunday to get settled before Monday’s classes and that the compensation package would be competitive.
He asked if I had any questions and paused to let me think, but it wasn’t enough time.
“Okay,” he said, and hung up.
My gut began to throb as soon as the line went dead, so much so that I had to rest awhile on my belly on my mattress with the phone on my ear before staggering down the hall to the bathtub. I flooded myself with warm water and Epsom salt and breathed slowly through my teeth, kneading my gut first with one hand and then the other and then both. Submerged up to my chin, I thought, ignore this feeling, ignore this feeling, ignore this feeling.
I arrived in Avonlea late Sunday morning and took a taxi from the train station through the woods to the school’s front gate, embellished with an iron Hercules swimming through gigantic waves. My gut hurt so much I’d considered staying home, and even considered getting off at one of the stations along the way and turning back, but it throbbed even more at the thought of extending the limbo I’d been in too long already. It seemed clear that no other way forward would materialize if I proved incapable of pursuing this one, so I got off the train and into the taxi, nursing a roll of Tums and a Diet Sprite.
When the Headmaster met me at the gate in a black Lexus, unlocking the passenger’s side door but not getting out, he did not have the air of a man enjoying his day of rest.
“Get in and close your eyes,” he said.
I did as I was told, listening to the beep that meant my seatbelt was unfastened. I stretched it across my gut, which hurt more the closer we got to wherever we were going. The ride across the grounds must have taken half an hour, and it was bumpy, like we were driving straight across an expanse of gravel. There was an opera on the car radio, but the longer we drove, the worse the reception became.
When we stopped he said, “Open your eyes and get out.”
I did as I was told, taking in the main school building, a two-story stone behemoth in a style I would describe, knowing nothing about architecture, as Scottish Gothic. I started toward it, but he clamped my shoulder and said, “This way,” and led me to a small stone cottage in a spruce grove. It had one door and one window, a chimney and a well out front.
We went inside.
“You live here,” he said. “There’s no lock on the door, but you won’t be bothered. Your duties are to show up at mealtimes.”
He handed me a laminated card that read B: 7:45am / L: 12pm / D: 6:30pm.
“Aside from that, you are to be seen in the hallways by the boys once per day, so there is no doubt as to your presence here. If the boys ask if anything’s wrong, you are to say no. We simply have too much riding on this year’s swim meet to risk disturbing them. You’ll understand if I don’t say more. They’re the best swimmers I’ve seen in years, and to put it bluntly, we need a win.”
He looked at the floor, and then back at me, or just past me. “Our treasurer will be in touch regarding practicalities. As a matter of discretion, please deposit your cell phone and any laptops or pads you may have brought with you in the box you’ll find in your kitchen, beside the complimentary fruit bowl. They will be monitored, assuming they aren’t password-protected, and you’ll be notified of important received communications.”
He cleared his throat and I realized he meant for me to do this right now. So I did, slowly, knowing I’d regret it.
When the box was full, I brought it back from the kitchen and handed it to him. He took it and left before I could ask when I would begin teaching and what the curriculum would be. I’d brought a fairly basic selection of books—mostly standard American lit along with some Dickens and Austen—assuming that whatever I’d need would be provided here, though I hadn’t wanted to show up empty-handed.
I pushed open the unlocked door of the bedroom and found the bed slightly ruffled, so that I couldn’t tell if fresh sheets had been put on sloppily or if they hadn’t been changed since the last person—presumably the teacher who’d left for personal reasons—had slept here. I bent to sniff the pillow, which smelled like sweat and spilled wine, and my gut ached so badly I didn’t try to stand back up.
I learned on Monday that not only was I not expected to teach, I wasn’t allowed to. What the Headmaster had said about being seen at mealtimes and in the hallways and reassuring the boys that nothing was wrong was the entirety of my role here. When I showed up at the faculty meeting in the library that afternoon, everyone fell silent, typing on their phones until I left.
I ate that night in a dusty back corner of the cafeteria, alone, the room so silent that my own chewing upset me. I wondered if the boys and the teachers conversed in my absence. Perhaps I was the problem, the thing they couldn’t adjust to, I thought, though I sensed it was deeper than this. I am the least of this place’s problems, I thought then, taking a Rice Krispies treat from the table by the door and walking across the grounds in the dark, back to my cottage with most of my dinner unfinished on the table in the back of the cafeteria.
The four boys were thin and mean-looking, their skin a mealy yellow.
Whenever I encountered them in the hall, I wasn’t sure who they thought I was—I’d certainly never been introduced as their teacher—so I just nodded at them, trying not to dwell on how frail and petrified they looked, beneath their hostility.
As weeks passed, I started wearing my pajamas all the time like a kid home sick from school, shocked at the length of a full day with nothing to break it up. I reread Billy Budd and The Tales of Poe and Leaves of Grass from the suitcase I’d brought, having imagined, in what now seemed like another life, that I’d be teaching from it like some itinerant priest spreading the good news.
Several times a day I sat on the cold, low toilet trying to purge what was in my gut. Nothing happened except that as October became November and then late November, I realized the cabin had no internal heating. No hot water either, so instead of braving the freezing shower, I dipped a cloth in a bowl beside the sink and swabbed down my crotch and armpits once a week.
Only grudgingly did the Headmaster supply me with a space heater, when I asked him for what must have been the eighth time.
I was lost in fantasies of fleeing through the woods when I heard someone stumbling outside my cottage on the first night of Advent.
I sat up in bed, listening to the space heater creak, and peered through the window at a woman in a long black dress and what sounded like heavy work boots, kicking at the dirt outside my door and muttering. The front light was on, so I could see her as long as she stayed within its wide circle.
If she knocks on my door, I decided, I’ll get up and see what she wants. If not, I’ll pretend I’m sleeping. The first night she didn’t knock. The second night she did, so I pulled my winter coat on over my pajamas and stepped into my boots and opened the door.
She appeared to be in her early forties, handsome but severe, her face lined with old plastic surgery scars or extreme worry lines. In the dark, I couldn’t tell if her hair was blonde or gray.
“Hello?” I managed.
“You must be the new fifth teacher.”
I nodded and she swayed and almost fell and I caught her, holding her propped against my chest perhaps longer than was strictly necessary. I leaned into her hair, she leaned into my neck. I could tell she wasn’t in any more of a hurry to break contact than I was.
So we stayed like that until we lost our balance and would have to either tip over the threshold and deeper into my quarters, or separate.
We separated. She stood back, wobbling, and looked at me, no longer as a stranger. “My boy,” she said. “I’m here for my boy. Something happened to him. I’m going to find out what. Go back to sleep now.”
I obeyed, glad for the moment to be told what to do.
She returned the next night, and the night after, and then every night that week. Inevitably, like we were each starring in the other’s dream, we began an affair, skipping all verbal preliminaries. I could tell how shaken she was, and I believe she could tell the same about me, and so she brought heavy unlabeled bottles of bourbon and we took our clothes off and drank them together in my bed.
This went on unchallenged until one morning, just after she’d pulled her clothes back on and slunk away into the frosty air, I was awoken from the doze I’d fallen into by a knock on the door.
I jolted upright just as the Headmaster showed himself in. He looked bleary and soft, sipping wine from a plastic bottle.
“I… ” I started, but he held up his hand as he settled onto the foot of my mattress, tipping me upward at the head.
“As you may be aware, this is a school that takes swimming very seriously.”
He paused until I nodded.
“Well, the day after tomorrow’s our biggest meet of the year. The championship. Against St. Teresa’s, currently the number one ranked boys’ swimming school in the country in the twelve to fourteen age group. Would you care to guess who number two is?”
“All I ask,” he went on, before I could guess, “is that you get yourself together. I’ll be turning on the hot water for an hour this morning, so you can take a shower and shave. Then, put on some clean clothes. Our boys’ mothers will be here, as will the mothers of the boys from St. Teresa’s, and exactly what we don’t need is a sweaty unshaven man in his pajamas looming around the periphery. Do you think you can do this for me?”
He unwrapped a mint from his pocket, giving the task his full attention for as long as it took. “Well? Yes or no?” he said, crunching down and wincing, like he’d bitten his cheek.
“Yes,” I said.
I wanted to ask if he’d consider letting me go after I did this for him, but I didn’t have the strength. As I watched him ball up the mint wrapper and show himself out, I felt like Hansel in the woods, growing fatter and fatter on my way to the oven, though unlike him, I hadn’t enjoyed a single decent meal so far.
She appeared that night as well and I let her in, uncertain whether to mention the Headmaster’s visit.
“My boy,” she said, lying on my chest on top of the sweaty sheets. “He’s somewhere on these grounds. Very nearby. Soon, the time to see him will come. The time to face the truth.”
I pictured him dense and charred beneath the spruce trees, his teeth gleaming like mica in the dirt.
“You’re part of it,” she whispered. “One big part of what’s happening here is you. I have a strong sense for these things, and it led me right here, to your door. I didn’t know this cottage existed until I came looking for my boy. I knew nothing about you. And yet, as soon as I saw you … well, here I am. Here we are.”
Now she was sitting against the headboard and I was lying in her lap, curled up and frightened, aware that things would not remain as they had been.
The morning before the morning of the swim meet arrived. I sat up beside her in bed and looked out my window, through the pre-dawn at the year’s first snow. Perfect, I thought. Too perfect.
A moment later, she sat up beside me, gathering the sheets about her and yawning as she too regarded the white trees. “Alright. C’mon. It’s time.”
She stood and got dressed and when she didn’t leave, I got dressed too, thinking, alright, whatever’s going to happen is going to happen now.
I closed the door behind us and she led me by the forearm toward the schoolhouse, through the snow.
“This way,” she said, steering us around the back of the building and in through the access door.
Inside, we stopped to catch our breath by the edge of the pool, which smelled like old sewage. The only lights on were underwater.
She wrinkled her nose, sniffing the air. I held onto her as she cased the edges. “This was his favorite,” she said, touching one of the four starting blocks. “I can tell. This is where he jumped in when the other boys weren’t looking. When he got up at night and went in to practice on his own. To try to get good enough. I always knew what the world held in store for him, but I never let myself think it would find him so soon. I thought, by sending him here, I could buy him a few peaceful years before people saw him for what he was.”
She burrowed sobbing into my gut and I had to swallow hard with my eyes closed to keep from spitting up in her hair.
“And he just loved swimming so, so much, and so I… ”
I held her tightly and pictured tomorrow’s swim meet. The adrenaline and anger that would choke these waters then.
Her voice got lower, like she wasn’t sure she wanted me to hear. “And, I’ll admit it, I couldn’t always stand him either. These last few years, just the two of us in that big house in Avonlea…I’m not proud, but I started to lose it. I needed some space.”
I held her until she stopped crying and wiped her nose on my chest. Then she said, “Okay, it’s time. No more pretending.”
I followed her out of the pool room and through a door that opened into a tiled hallway. Now she was in charge again, wiping her eyes with one hand and leading me like a child past the oxidized trophies in the walls, into the bathroom where the showers were.
I felt my gut heave harder than ever, like a kick, and this time I did spit up on her. Unperturbed, she tried to wipe it away, but it only smeared her hair into a tangle.
“He’s very very close now,” she said, pushing me toward the toilet stalls, shaking, saying, “No, this one … in here … in here,” as she ran her hands along the beige plastic doors, feeling each one.
She dragged me along, sniffing the plastic of the stalls in the dark, until she shrieked upon feeling the scaly leather covering the second from the wall, and pushed me inside. I stumbled back onto the toilet and felt my gut kick again and my eyes film over with sweat, and I knew I had less than a second to pull my pants down.
As I sat on the toilet with bile pouring out of me, my pajamas around my ankles, a flashlight came on and I had to squint to make out the Headmaster, holding his robe shut with one hand, sweeping the beam between me and the woman with the other.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, and she began to explain, saying it wasn’t how it looked, how he had it all wrong, and I began to gather that she was his wife, and I heard him shout, “This is exactly what you always do! This is why we… ”
Looking down, ashamed at my involvement, I saw, poking through what I’d excreted, a muddle of bones and skin and sinew and gristle and blood all scabbed together in the toilet bowl. Then I lost track of the situation. I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying, or why, or whether any of it made sense.
When I came to, the woman and the Headmaster were clustered behind the toilet, me sitting on it, both of them rubbing my hair.
“We’ve caught our breaths,” they said. “We’ve hashed everything out.”
They asked me if I’d had a nightmare and I flashed back to my early childhood, sitting at the kitchen table with my parents being fed rice pudding and hearing about good fairies and bad, the war within all of our heads, the way in which nightmares are ultimately good because they mean something inside of us is working itself out.
I nodded. A nightmare, yes, I was thinking, as they leaned in, breaths hot and stale, and rubbed my shoulders until I began to relax. I’ve had a nightmare. Then the Headmaster stepped back and cleared his throat, pointing the flashlight at the ceiling so it was out of our eyes. “Well, thank you for bringing him here,” he said to the woman. “I would like to apologize for my crude assumption earlier. I hope you will forgive me for misreading the situation.”
She nodded. “Of course, dear. Given the circumstances, anyone would’ve thought the same. I myself, to be honest, was confused at first.”
Then both of them looked at me, like they were waiting for me to speak. But I felt much too distant to do anything but watch.
“Well, the swim meet is tomorrow,” the woman said, breaking the silence. “The championship. Our affairs must be in order before then. We don’t have much time.”
The Headmaster cleared his throat and addressed me, flashlight trained again on my face. “Indeed we don’t. Look. Something happened here. Something bad. Our boy, he’s… well, we thought he was…” the Headmaster swallowed and cleared his throat. “My wife and I, we were estranged for many years, but then, for reasons that don’t concern you, we believed the time to reconcile had finally come. As a sort of truce, we arranged to enroll our boy here so that he and I might spend some quality time together.” His throat caught and he had to stop speaking for a moment. “But after so long apart, I found myself unable to reach him. He was a stranger to me,” he continued, when he could. “This was a hitch we couldn’t have foreseen. But, thanks be to God, a miracle has occurred, in that…” His voice caught again here and he fell silent.
“What he’s saying,” the woman cut in, “is that it’s been revealed to us that you are our son. Not a replacement, but another version of him. Our son twenty or so years down the line. Our son who grew up and went to college and then graduate school and then became a teacher, rather than… ” She cleared her throat in the direction of the toilet beneath me, glancing at it without saying anything. “That’s why I was drawn to your cabin. I sensed him there. I just, and I hope you won’t take offense at this, did not at first imagine he was you.”
“Imagine my wife’s elation when she discovered that our son had returned to us!” the Headmaster took over. “Here, to work alongside his father, ensuring that the fine art of competitive swimming continues to be taught in a context of absolutely first-rate academic rigor. To ensure that our nation’s Olympians can discourse as intelligently on Billy Budd as they can on their dietary and workout regimens.”
The Headmaster put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me close enough to where I could smell the bourbon on his lips.
“Think about it,” the woman continued. “You’d have everything you need here. A full salary at our highest, tenured level. Full benefits. A generous retirement package. The love of two devoted parents, determined never to make the same mistakes again…”
I understood she wasn’t threatening me, but that she would if I turned her offer down. And why would I? What alternative did I have? Glancing below me, at the pulp and scabs and knobs of bone, I could think of none.
“There are certain things that some may say have happened here,” she said, “but which we will know, in our hearts, never did. Certain awful things that the three of us, right here and right now, with the help of God, are in a position to undo.”
Impatient now, the Headmaster tightened his grip on my shoulder and said, “Can we count on you, son?”
I cleared my throat several times, to the point where it was so dry it hurt, and then instead of saying anything I nodded.
After this I felt them leading me out of the locker room and back to the pool. The two of them together pulled my clothes off and eased me onto the starting block and whispered, “This will make it official,” and next thing I know I’m deep in the briny orange-brown water, feeling its hot, stewy reek go down my throat, feeling the years of doubt and worry wash away, the tension in my back and chest dissolve, the fetal curl of my arms straighten out and flush with strength. I don’t want it ever to end. I want to bathe forever in this thick bath, growing younger and more powerful and more certain that the nightmare has worked itself out inside me, until I disappear out the beginning of my life and come back a thousand times better, in some era far into the future, when all the world’s problems are forgotten.
But I hear them call my name and, pursuant to the contract I’ve signed with a nod, I have to obey. So I return to the surface and paddle over to where they wait with a towel outstretched to receive me.
They fish me out and wrap me up, and I hear them say, “We’ll show you to your room now, the one you grew up in,” and I feel the towel begin to merge with my back, and I realize it’s not a towel but a thick, jagged swath of skin, formerly someone else’s. As its nerves meld with mine, I feel the awful bulge in my gut settle, and I can sense that whatever used to be wrong with me has been made right.