The Nine

Chapter 1

The first time I heard Headmaster Williams speak the foreign phrase, I took it as a promise from one parent to another. Later, I’d learn it was the law, but on that very first day, when he touted in loco parentis as one of the academy’s primary responsibilities, I gave the man credit for comprehending a mother’s pain.

Even though I’d turned Sam over to Dunning Academy five years prior, I recalled the headmaster’s speech like it had happened yesterday: the way the Latin rolled off his Brahmin tongue, the way he pushed his round tortoiseshell glasses high on the bridge of his nose, and the way his tweed jacket stretched across the remnants of an athletic build. I see now how clinging to his every word was a little ridiculous, but back then I craned my neck, peering above the crest-adorned podium, to fully absorb his booming wisdom.

Even though I’d packed away my blind worship of the man along with everything else from my old life, that memory of him was back.

You see, my new life was only recently planted, hadn’t yet established deep roots, and I was vulnerable to storms and floods, to the slightest gusts of wind. My safe harbor was work, and a recent promotion to executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs had become an all-consuming endeavor. Thanks to the Internet, however, even that couldn’t protect me.

I was thumbing through insurance policies, waivers, and program schedules when my assistant popped her head through the door. “I’m heading home now, Hannah,” she said.

I looked at her over my reading glasses, then checked my watch. After conducting story time for our youngest campers, I’d gotten lost in a pile of paperwork, hoping to make a dent before the weekend. “Is it that time already?”

“Yes, it is,” she said, with a wink, before rustling her purse from a file drawer. “You should cut out soon too.” Not long after, her footsteps faded down the hallway, and the only noises left were the kids’ cheers in the gymnasium. The club served students who needed its supervised recreation desperately. They didn’t have mothers waiting at home to greet them after school.

I brushed my unruly hair into a clip and dug my yoga gear out of the closet. Joy and I had plans to meet at a six o’clock class and then go to dinner. It had become our standing Thursday date, one that I looked forward to not only for the companionship but also for the benefits to my fifty-eight-year-old, deskbound body.

Before shutting down my laptop, I checked email one last time, hoping for something from Sam. Instead, a message from his former dorm parent, Shawn Willis, caught my attention. The subject line read:

Re: Dunning, wanted to make sure you saw this.

My hand floated back, seeking the stability of my armchair as my body sank down into it.

Hannah,
Lou forwarded this to me. It was sent to the Dunning Academy community yesterday. Be glad that it’s all behind you.
Best,
Shawn

My eyelid resumed its rapid twitching of the prior year, as if preparing for an onslaught of debris. The email Shawn forwarded was addressed to Dunning families, past and present. That we weren’t included on the original distribution was yet another sign that the Webbers had been wiped from the school’s system.

I skimmed the words, my vision dancing, wanting to take in the email’s whole meaning in one gulp. I finally focused, drawn to the last paragraph:

As the Board of Trustees, we accept full responsibility for the failures of those whose duty it was to protect the students. We recognize the enormous violation of trust and the lasting wounds inflicted and endured.

I couldn’t believe it. An admission of guilt by Dunning Academy?

My mouth turned dry, and I reached for the water bottle in my yoga bag. I read the letter again. It wasn’t signed by Headmaster Williams. He was long gone, and besides, he would never have conceded such a thing.

That first afternoon in the Dunning assembly hall, I had been mesmerized by his charismatic Kennedy style—that toothy smile, his slicked-back dark hair, his wise expression—welcoming us to some sort of Camelot. His assurances had allayed my fears as I stood at the sink over the next three years, hands submerged in sudsy water, my deepening worry lines reflected in the blackened bay window. Although the thing I loved most about my old, simple kitchen was the doorframe where I’d etched lines and penned dates chronicling Sam’s growth over the years, I always remembered myself at that sink. Every Sunday evening, I’d be scrubbing chicken drippings from a roasting pan and waiting for the phone to ring.

Sam conditioned us with well-spaced contact, our relationship hanging on a lifeline of weekly phone calls. I’d kidded myself they were enough, and what a laugh that would prove to be. I’d carry the phone past the space station model he’d left half-finished in the family room, so that Edward and I could talk to him on the speaker. I’d saved up so many topics for those calls and had needed, I realized now, so much in return. I’d needed Sam’s happy voice to confirm that Dunning Academy had been the right decision, to lighten the weight accumulating in my chest.

Yoga. I closed the laptop and left my office. On the car ride over, I recounted a guided meditation and wondered if I might let my anger toward Headmaster Williams float away like a helium balloon. It was a visual that had proved successful over time with regard to my feelings for Edward, but I doubted there was enough helium in the world to lift my resentment for the headmaster. And I vowed not to bring it up at dinner either. Joy was a good friend, but I couldn’t burden our Thursday night with any more of my history.

We’d met at the yoga studio years earlier, and she’d come to my rescue after the divorce. She’d pulled me from the deep recesses of my hard drive, a place where I stored pictures of happier days, when Sam’s voice rang through the house and he needed me to shuttle him to early-morning swim practice.

I’d fallen into the habit of sifting through pictures, sometimes all the way back to the day my miracle baby was born. I’d gotten pregnant right after our wedding, then miscarried twice. We’d tried for many years before Edward agreed to see a fertility specialist. Before our initial evaluation, however, I missed my period. Edward attributed the healthy pregnancy to my leaving the bank, and to reduced stress, but I was convinced it was prayer.

Sitting at a traffic light, I wondered if somebody had forwarded the email to Sam as well. I squeezed the steering wheel with one hand and twisted a loose strand of hair with the other, recalling the gleeful afternoon when an email from Dunning signified his acceptance. I’d gone so far as to pop champagne before supper, celebrating not only his entry into an elite, rarefied world but also my job well done. It had been I, after all, who had taken him to the library every week and quizzed him with flash cards before vocabulary tests.

A week after we celebrated, another email arrived from the school, to Edward’s address this time, saying Sam hadn’t qualified for financial aid. Truth be told, I was secretly pleased Dunning hadn’t lumped us among its neediest families. My parents’ finances were the reason I’d remained in state for college, and it was nice to think that, in Dunning’s opinion, at least, we had means.

Edward explained it had nothing to do with our cash flow and everything to do with our balance sheet. “It’s our zip code, Hannah.” If his parents hadn’t helped with the down payment, rooting us in one of Boston’s western suburbs, we would never have owned a home with so much value. I pleaded with him to figure something out. His parents had seemed impressed when I’d called to tell them about Dunning. “Maybe they’ll help with the tuition?”

Edward shook his head at that idea, instead spending several nights armed with pad and calculator beneath the glow of his desk lamp. He finally jostled me awake, having determined we could swing it if I tightened things further and worked additional hours. I wept into the pillow, forgiving him, if only momentarily, for having never become the provider he could have been.

Edward grumbled when it was time to send in the tuition deposit, but I shushed him, not wanting Sam to carry any added pressure. How foolish I’d been back then, thinking our biggest sacrifice was financial.

As I prepared for his departure, I ignored the naysayers. There were my sisters back in Ohio, conservative Jews with ten children between them, mystified about why I’d send Sam away, especially after how hard it was to have him in the first place. They never understood how things were done in this educated corner of New England.

“It’s Dunning,” I explained. “When one has an opportunity to attend, one doesn’t decline.” It was a phrase I’d overheard while waiting for our interview in the admissions office. What I’d never voice was my premonition that Sam was destined for something extraordinary and that it was my duty, as his mother, to set him on the right path.

The mothers of Sam’s middle school classmates didn’t know what to make of me either; I was a decade older because of the trouble we’d had conceiving. They never invited me to their girls’ nights or book clubs, or whatever other excuses they came up with to drink wine away from their children midweek. Still, their doubting expressions sometimes gave me pause. I had to remind myself of Dunning’s place in history, the caliber of men counted among its alumni—Supreme Court justices and US senators, for goodness’ sake.

“Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.” The yoga teacher chanted her prompts. “Let go of your day. If your mind is racing, come back to your breath.” I filled my lungs, then emptied them through my nostrils, wrestling with the hold Williams had on me. It was as if he’d looked directly into my eyes the day Edward and I dropped off Sam and sat among the two hundred other parents who’d bought into a name-brand education, and delivered a personal message to me.

He’d said his daughter, Mary, would be a member of the class as well, as if that meant he would pay extra attention to this crop. He said it was time for us to wean our children, that, despite our belief to the contrary, they were ready to get on with their promising futures. It was time to stop helping with their homework and reviewing their essays. He also pressed us not to fall prey to their homesickness, their inevitable frantic calls. “You mothers will be particularly vulnerable to the distress in their voices,” he warned. “But don’t you worry—we are experts in the business of teenagers. Give us six weeks, and they’ll be well on their way.”

When he remembered my name, I was convinced. “Thank you for entrusting Sam to us, Mrs. Webber,” he said, holding my gaze for an extra beat before Edward guided me out, his hand on the small of my back.

On the drive home, I double-checked the literal translation of in loco parentis with Edward. “In place of a parent,” he told me. Headmaster Williams never specified, I realized later, which kind of parent—the kind who gets down on the floor and puts on puppet shows or the kind who forgets her child in an overheating car.

Not until later would I recall the way Edward winced when I portioned out the three flutes of bubbly to celebrate. The problem was, he never articulated his concerns. I chalked up his lack of enthusiasm to the fact that he’d also come of age in these East Coast prep schools and couldn’t truly appreciate what a leg up he’d been given. I assumed it was the money and that he’d miss having another man around the house. I can’t help thinking now that there was something else he knew, something I’d have no way of understanding, about the enigma of boarding schools, how strange they could be. Now that they are in the news day after day, featured in more stories of misconduct and cover-ups, I wonder what he chose to keep private.

But I can’t cast the blame on Edward. When I put my mind to something, there’s no stopping me. I saw the Forbes ranking of the best high schools in the United States, and I wouldn’t settle for anything less than Dunning Academy for my Sam.

When the yoga class ended, Joy and I dressed in the changing room. I followed her car to the restaurant, and when we entered, she cast animated eyes toward the active bar. It wasn’t until we were seated that she furrowed her brow with concern. “Okay, what’s going on?” she asked. “You’re in another world.”

A server stopped at our table. “You ladies want the usual?”

“I’ll need a minute,” I said, holding my menu. When she moved along, I said to Joy, “I’m sorry. I got an email before leaving the office.”

“Edward?”

“No.”

“Sam?”

“No.”

“What, then?”

“Never mind.”

“Just let me see.” Joy held out her hand for my phone, as if she’d be able to read it, decipher its meaning, and categorically dismiss whatever was bothering me so we could get on with our evening.

“No, it’s okay. I’m fine.” I couldn’t explain that it was Dunning and the headmaster again; it was the damned hypocrisy.

“Fork it over,” she insisted.

I felt around in my purse, knowing she wouldn’t back down. Pulling out my phone, I noticed Sam had texted: “Call me when you can.”

The hairs on my forearms stood straight up. It wasn’t Sunday. He must have seen the email too.

“I’m so sorry, Joy. I need to go out to the parking lot to return a call.”

I navigated the crowd at the bar toward the exit, dialing Sam’s number en route.

“Mom?” He picked up immediately.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

“Sort of.”

My heart cratered at his crackling voice, at the distance between us. I leaned against the hood of my car and asked, “Did you see the email?”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah. That’s why I texted.”

“Shawn forwarded it to me. I read it briefly on my way out of the office.” I couldn’t predict whether he would feel angry or vindicated. Likely both.

“They’ve hired a special counsel and set up a process where victims can come forward to make reports.”

“But not you?”

“No, Mom. Nathalie and Astrid and some of the other girls in Bennett want to.”

Why was this an acceptable time to come forward? Just a year earlier, when Sam had had something to say, it had stirred up a tsunami.

“Mom?”

“Right. Of course. Of course they should make a report. Absolutely,” I stammered. “But…”

“But what?”

“I worry about you. Opening old wounds after you’ve come so far.”

“I know, but it’s time for the girls to seek justice.”

I put my hand to my temple, remembering how, not so long before, Dunning’s lawyers had browbeaten us. Would they really receive Nathalie and Astrid any differently?

“I might be called on to make a statement.”

“And the Crandalls?” I asked.

After a brief pause, Sam chuckled. “I never thought I’d live to hear you concerned about them.”

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The Nine

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Eden

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