We walked. Dr. Rettington said we’d see more of the campus this way, and should I choose to remain, I would see how I’d be getting to and from my house to the campus, which might be something to think about when making my decision. Mother agreed. She was a very down-to-earth person and not a bit like the fragile women who show up in so many novels and movies. A healthy walk was fine with her. I think she would have set the pace if Dr. Rettington hadn’t been slow afoot and taking the time to point things out to me.
As we walked across campus towards the buildings, passing the boys on the front lawn, he was telling me what the purposes of the various buildings were and their names. The older boys we encountered kept interrupting him, and the ones at a distance waved and called out to him. It was obvious he wasn’t the ivory-tower, aloof sort of educator. The boys’ smiles were genuine. It was obvious they felt an affinity for him. He had the same reaction to them, calling them by name and making, it seemed to me, somewhat teasing and often derogatory-sounding remarks to them, at which they laughed. Their curious glances at me weren’t hostile, nothing like what I’d seen earlier at Kennilworth House.
We walked between two buildings which Dr. Rettington identified as the sciences and languages buildings, Braxton Hall and the Hall des Langues et de la Culture. This last he pronounced in perfect French, or at least I supposed it was. I had no idea what perfect French sounded like, only what my French tutor sounded like.
Past the buildings, behind the school, lay the athletic fields. We turned and walked past the backs of the school buildings towards a wooded area. There were several paths leading from the school grounds into the woods. Dr. Rettington chose the next to last path to our left; all the others ran into the woods spaced out to our right, the farthest one away being a good distance from where we were.
Mother and I kept pace with him, which wasn’t difficult as he wasn’t a quick-stepping walker. Leisurely strolling was his style. The woods appeared to skirt the school to the east of the grounds, but they weren’t very deep. They were thick, however, and I couldn’t see any of the other paths because of the ground vegetation and dense trees, which appeared to be mostly oaks and hickories, maples and birches. A short walk on a well-used path brought us up to a house about the size of Kennilworth House, though I was seeing it from the side.
We continued on till we came to the front of the house. “This is Culver House,” said Dr. Rettington, and he swept his arm in a grand gesture, taking in the whole house and yard. It looked similar to Kennilworth House, with a wide, railed front porch that had wicker furniture spotted here and there. The house was covered with shingles that were painted a very light blue with darker blue trim boards. The lawn was mowed, the flower beds weed-free. The trees in the front yard provided shade for both the lawn and the front windows of the house. The thing I liked best, seeing it all, was that there were no menacing boys sitting on the front steps acting as Cerberean sentinels.
We walked up the steps and into the house. It was cooler inside than out. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it looked expansive from what I could see from the entry hall. Large rooms were to my left and right, a hallway ran from the entryway where we’d entered to the back of the house, and a wide staircase, starting halfway along the hallway, rose to the upper regions of the house. There were doors on each side of the long hallway, and Dr. Rettington knocked on the farthest one.
The door was opened by a tall, thin, gray-haired woman in a long dress, who smiled when she saw Dr. Rettington. “Eldon! How good to see you again.”
“Ella, I’ve dropped by to introduce you to a young man who may or may not be staying with us.” He reached out and barely, very briefly, touched my shoulder. “This is Luke Pallfry. And his mother, Laura Palmer-Pallfry. Laura, Luke, this is Mrs. Fannon. She’s the housemother of The Culver. Ella, is Barlow around?”
“He had a meeting in town and won’t be back till this afternoon. He was here this morning. We were expecting Luke earlier. But when he didn’t show up—” she looked briefly at me with questioning eyes, then turned back to the headmaster “—it got to the time he had to be off. He’ll be sorry to have missed you.”
Dr. Rettington smiled. “That’s fine. No problem.” Then he turned to me. “Luke, I’d like you to look around the house, see what it’s like, see the boys in their natural habitat. But if Mrs. Fannon or I escort you, you’ll only hear an adult’s view of The Culver, and it would be much better if you’d see it from the vantage point of someone who lives here. Now, there are two boys I’d recommend. One is the head boy of the house, which is a position that’s voted on by the boys themselves. His name is Tommy Bossard, he’s 17, and he’s a good guy. He wouldn’t have been voted in otherwise, especially in Culver House.” Dr. Rettington stopped to chuckle at his own humor.
“Or,” he continued, “I could have Mike Autry show you around. Mike is thirteen, like you, he’s smart as a whip, and he’s looking forward to having a roommate. He’s been alone in his room since the term began; we’d thought you’d be coming at the term’s outset, and had you penciled in with him. Having him show you the house would give you a chance to get to know him, and he could tell you what it’s like here. You’d have more information to consider before making your decision. Or your mother can go with us, and I can take you around if you’d prefer that. What do you think?”
Man oh man, I didn’t want to go off into the bowels of this manse without adult support. What if on the second floor I came upon another band of hooligans? And what if this potential roommate was that sort himself? My heart started beating faster, and I almost said no.
But the other choices were probably worse. Going with any of the adults would make me look like a weenie; I’d feel like one, too. And if by some weird positioning of the moon and stars I did decide I wanted to live here among the enemy, starting off with a pejorative label like ‘weenie’ or ‘mama’s boy’ wouldn’t help my cause.
The head boy wouldn’t be much better. I didn’t get on well with older boys, especially ones in authority. They didn’t take to me for some reason. Maybe it had something to do with the fact I spoke as I did, and they thought I was putting on airs. Airs, schmairs! I wasn’t! I just read a lot, and as far as vocabulary went, I exercised the sound principle of use it or lose it. Or maybe it was because I was more comfortable immersed in a book than in mingling with my peers, and using my vocabulary not only made me think that I was protected from mingling, it seemed to effectively enhance my changes of being left alone.
Thinking about it, I realized there were certainly advantages in meeting someone scheduled to room with me. It could help me make the firm decision that this place, or any such place, was simply not for me. I could imagine who he’d be. Some kid probably bigger, rougher and more athletic than I, loud and superior, one who’d set the rules in our room, one who liked to use study time with acid rock blaring at high volume from his stereo while he stomped his feet to the beat and mimicked the lyrics in a nasal and unharmonious voice—unfortunately, I knew the type well—and I’d know in the first five minutes this wasn’t going to work and could go home having given it a fair chance.
So I said, “I think I’d like to meet my proposed roommate. That way we could see if we’re a fit while he’s showing me around.”
Dr. Rettington beamed at me. “That would be great, Luke! Well done.” He turned to Mrs. Fannon. “Do you think you could scare up Mike Autry for me, Ella?”
“Of course. Just give me a minute,” and she was out the door in the swish of a skirt.
“What do you think so far?” my mother asked, using a mellow tone of voice that wasn’t really like her. I knew she wanted me to accept this school. And not simply so as to be rid of me. She really thought I’d benefit from the experience.
“I can’t forget what happened when I arrived,” I said.
Dr. Rettington winced. And then Mrs. Fannon was back. In tow was a boy who was my size, that is, smaller than average for our age. He looked about eleven years old to me. His hair was long and a mess of golden curls; he had freckles and wore a pair of glasses that were too big for him. His face was fairly pale, but each of his cheeks wore a rosy glow. I’d seen other boys with that peculiar coloring. He wore an oversized T-shirt and shorts that fell to below his knees. Somehow, the entire outfit made him appear smaller than he was.
Dr. Rettington smiled. “Luke, this is Mike Autry. Mike, Luke Pallfry. Mike, can you show Luke around and especially the room he’ll share with you should he decide to join us?”
“Sure, Dr. Rettington,” Mike answered. He had a high-pitched, breathy voice lacking vibrancy, a sure sign he was waiting for puberty’s assault. He smiled at me, and his pale-blue eyes flashed. “Hi, Luke. Let’s go.”
I followed him out of the room. I immediately felt the lack of adult presence. Thrown to the wolves again. Except if anyone could look un-lupine, it would be Mike.
Outside the office where we’d just been, the house was noisier. I was immediately reminded that a lot of boys lived here. I could see a few milling down the halls, calling back and forth to each other. I felt some nervousness returning. I saw Mike watching me and took any sign of trepidation off my face, replacing it with a stern visage.
He started walking, assuming I’d follow, and as he did, he spoke over his shoulder to me. “Whew! Glad to be out of there!”
That piqued my interest. I moved up so I was walking next to him. He was heading for the staircase. “Why?”
“Dr. Rettington scares me.”
“Scares you? Really? He seems very cordial—affable even.”
Mike was taking me upstairs by now. “Well, to be honest, he is. Most of the boys here like him a lot. And I guess I do, too, mostly. It’s just…if you’re talking to him one-on-one, he can look at you, and his eyes bore into yours, and it’s like he can read your mind. It sure feels that way. You’re almost forced to tell the truth, and that can be really awkward…you know, like when telling the truth doesn’t help just then with whatever the situation is.”
I nodded. “Yes, I certainly understand how prevarication can efface indiscretions.”
He looked over at me and his forehead wrinkled momentarily. We kept climbing the stairs. We’d passed the second floor and were approaching the third.
“How high are we going?” I asked.
“The youngest kids live on the top floor. Each year you’re here, you move down, but only if you want to. Sort of a reward, I guess. Most guys do. We’re on the top.”
“So our legs get a constitutional periodically through the day,” I said to keep the conversation going. Small talk wasn’t my forte.
He looked over at me and frowned again but then smiled and put his hand up to cover his mouth as he faked a cough, but I could see in his eyes that he was grinning.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, and then laughed.
“No, tell me,” I urged.
“You talk funny,” he said.
I stopped. We were almost up to the third floor. No other boys were around us. I just looked at him. Was he making fun of me? Was he, even he, going to be embarrassing me, teasing me, making me more self-conscious than I usually was around other boys?
“I like it,” he said and laughed. His eyes flashed, and I couldn’t help myself, his glee was so infectious. I found myself laughing, too. I couldn’t believe it, but it’s what I did.
“Come on!” We’d reached the top of the stairs and he grabbed my arm and started down the hall. “We’ve got a great room! It’s at the end of the hall so we’ve only got one room next to us, which makes it quieter, and we’re in front so we can look out over the campus instead of watching all the Neanderthals playing sports. Oops! Maybe you like sports. I hope not. Do you? I don’t. I hate them. But we have to do something. We have to have an organized activity. But the one I’d like to have—” he sort of blushed at this point but then raced on “—isn’t in the academic schedule.”
He stopped for a breath, and I asked, “Do you always talk this much?”
He grinned at me. “No, only when I’m nervous.”
“You’re nervous? Why? I don’t scare anyone.”
“I’m not nervous scared; I’m nervous because I want you to like me. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but if we’re roommates, it’s much better if we tell each other the truth. We can really be friends that way, not just kids sharing a room. Sometimes I need to talk about things and ask questions about stuff I don’t understand but am embarrassed to talk about, and I don’t have anyone like that now. Mostly I get ignored because I’m little and not athletic, and I’m smart. I make the other kids nervous. They don’t know what to do with me, and so they ignore me. It’s lonely that way. I hate being lonely.”
“OK. OK. So stop being nervous around me. I’m a bit like that, too. I mean, the smart and nonathletic bits. But I don’t talk a lot, not even when I’m nervous. Jeez!”
Then I realized that might sound like I was criticizing him, so I smiled and tried to make my rolling eyes look friendly, tried to act like the sarcasm was an attempt at warm, self-deprecating humor. I don’t know; actors can do that. I didn’t know if I could or not. I’d never tried it before.
“You might not talk a lot, but when you do, you sure sound funny. You use big words, and it’s humorous because you’re not as big as they are!”
“Hey!” I said, prepared to be offended, but he laughed again. I don’t know how he did it, but when he laughed, I couldn’t help laughing, too. This was twice now. I’d have to learn to control myself.
That was when I realized that if I was thinking that way, maybe I was also thinking of staying here. Now that was a change. I sobered up quickly.
But I had the perfect answer to what he’d just said. “Mike, you say you talk too much when you’re nervous. Well, I’m nervous, too, and when I am, my speech becomes a lot more formal, hence the more esoteric vocabulary.”
I had to stop because he was laughing again. I grinned. “OK, there’s an example. So we each have a way of showing we’re nervous. Another similarity we have.”
“What are you nervous about?” Mike asked.
I didn’t answer right away. There were two beds in the room, single beds, and I sat down on one, facing him. He must have gotten the idea from my face that I wanted to talk, not just joke around, because he sat down on his bed and quickly lost his grin.
I could tell the bed he was sitting on was his because it was made. The one I was on had a bare mattress and a pile of sheets and blankets, folded and ready to be used.
“I’m nervous because I don’t do well around other boys,” I said. “I was home-schooled the last couple of years because of that. Then, this morning, I had a disaster when I first arrived. So meeting you without knowing what you were like made me nervous. Meeting the other boys in the house will, too. Can you tell me what this place is like? I mean, do you feel safe here? Are you treated OK? By the other boys, I mean?”
He looked at me oddly. “Safe? Why wouldn't it be safe? Our parents spend thousands of dollars to send us here, and there’s a waiting list. If it weren’t safe…” He tapered off, still looking at me, even his eyes no longer cheerful. “Why are you asking that?”
So, throwing caution to the wind, I told him a very condensed version of my adventures earlier that day, leaving out much of the emotional stuff. Still, I couldn’t entirely control my voice, and he heard it. I could see it in his face.
When I finished, I dropped my head. Talking about it had brought those covered-up emotions back, and my eyes reacted as I hadn’t wanted them to. He saw that, too.
His voice was consoling, as consoling as a thirteen-year-old can make it. “Luke, I’ve never seen or felt anything like that here. I have heard stories that some of the houses are rougher than others. They try to match boys to houses. Harmon and Kennilworth are the two with the worst boys in them—the athletic and less civilized ones. But there are strict rules of behavior at the school. If you’ve told the headmaster about this, I’m sure something will be done. In any event, this house isn’t anything like that. We have nice kids in this house, and most of them are way smart and don’t want to get just good marks; they want top marks. You’ll fit in fine. Most of the guys here are smart enough that they won’t even need to carry a dictionary around with them to know what you’re talking about.”
I was to learn, as time passed, that Mike had a very dry sense of humor, and when he was his funniest was when he didn’t crack a smile. Like right then.
We talked some more, and I heard some things that didn’t sound too bad, but we didn’t have much time. After only a few minutes, I heard a gong. It wasn’t very loud, but then we were on the third floor and the gong sounded far away.
“Hey, that’s lunch!” Mike had already leaped up. “Let’s go. You can eat with us, and that’ll show you both the food and how the boys are here. Come on!”
He raced from the room, full of enthusiasm. I could do nothing but follow, although the idea of meeting a mass of boys was enough to quiet any appetite I had at the moment. I didn’t bother to tell him I’d already had a salad at Dr. Rettington’s house. It wasn’t a bad idea to at least sample the food here if I was going to stay.
I got to the dining room just behind Mike. There were individual tables set up, some with four chairs on each side, some with only three, but all had one on each end. Mrs. Fannon was at the head of one of the tables, and it appeared to me that was the table where a lot of the younger boys were sitting. There were a few empty chairs. I was undecided what to do. I hadn’t been formally invited to eat lunch there.
Somewhat inconveniently, neither my mother nor Dr. Rettington was anywhere to be seen. I stopped, feeling more nervous as some of the boys at the tables noticed me. I looked for Mike and found him talking to Mrs. Fannon. She smiled and nodded. Mike came back to me and said, “She said it was fine. I sit at her table. There are a couple of empty chairs there. Let’s sit together.”
I was very grateful for that. We sat down, and then some women came into the room carrying trays that had bowls of soup on them. Rather quickly they put the bowls in front of everyone. I reached for my spoon, but Mike put his hand over mine.
“Grace,” he said quietly.
“Really?” I said. I wasn’t a bit religious and in fact felt religious ceremonies a bit silly or, if I was in a mood, annoying.
He nodded, then put his finger to his lips, and I didn’t say anything more. The room quieted, and Mrs. Fannon said grace, luckily a brief one, and then the noise resumed.
As I ate my soup, I looked around as covertly as I could, trying to avoid eye contact. A lot of eyes would look my way and then away. Suddenly, with no warning at all, my stomach lurched. Sitting a few chairs away from me at our table on the same side I was on was a red-haired kid about my age with a reddish complexion and redder, flushed cheeks, giving him a striking appearance. He wore his hair long, but it was brushed so it almost glowed, and taken as a whole, he was very…well, there’s no other way to put it…he was pretty. He was perhaps the prettiest boy I’d ever seen. And there was something about him that arrested my eyes; I couldn’t seem to stop glancing at him.
I also couldn’t stop my heart, which had a mind of its own; it started beating wildly, speeding up, going thump-thump-thump instead of just thump. I may even have gone pale, as I momentarily felt somewhat faint. Never had another boy so attracted my attention. Never had one given me the physical sensations I was experiencing. He hadn’t only taken possession of my eyes, but my whole being had been affected.
He was talking to the boy next to him. I watched him as he delicately lifted a spoonful of soup from his bowl and slowly moved it to his mouth, doing so with grace and style. My eyes were frozen, and so when he looked up, right at me, I was caught. He locked eyes with me for a brief moment, then looked back down at his soup with a slight smile on his face, the most enigmatic smile I had ever seen.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the lunch. Somehow I must have eaten it. Somehow I must have stopped looking at the boy. Mike had said some things to me, and I must have answered, but my mind was elsewhere. When lunch was finished, without understanding how, I ended up back in Mike’s room. I didn’t even remember climbing all those stairs.
Mike pushed me onto my bed, and he sat on his. “That was Sutton,” he said.
“The red-headed kid. His name is Sutton. Sutton Margrove. Half the boys in this house are smitten by him.”
Well, I may have been in some sort of daze, but that got my attention. “Smitten? You used the word ‘smitten’? And you accuse me of a precocious vocabulary? Who says ‘smitten’ these days—or anytime in the last century?”
Mike grinned at me. “Hey, welcome back to the land of the living. Nice to have you back! And don’t worry about your reaction to Sutton. Being in love with him is par for the course here.”
Aha! So that was it! I wasn’t sick or struck dumb. I was simply in love. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was in love.