Accelerated: A Novelby Bronwen Hruska
Every afternoon Sean Benning picks up his son, Toby, on the marble steps that lead into the prestigious Bradley School. Everything at Bradley is accelerated—3rd
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In a striking debut novel, a single father and his son discover what lies beneath the gilded façade of a tony Upper East Side private school: an endemic of over-medicated children.
Every afternoon Sean Benning picks up his son, Toby, on the marble steps that lead into the prestigious Bradley School. Everything at Bradley is accelerated—3rd graders read at the 6th grade level, they have labs and facilities to rival most universities, and the chess champions are the bullies. A single dad and struggling artist, Sean sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the power-soccer-mom cliques and ladies-who-lunch that congregate on the steps every afternoon. But at least Toby is thriving and getting the best education money can buy. Or is he?
When Sean starts getting pressure from the school to put Toby on medication for ADD, something smells fishy, and it isn’t the caviar that was served at last week’s PTA meeting. Toby’s “issues” in school seem, to Sean, to be nothing more than normal behavior for an eight-year-old boy. But maybe Sean just isn’t seeing things clearly, which has been harder and harder to do since Toby’s new teacher, Jess, started at Bradley. And the school has Toby’s best interests at heart, right? But what happens when the pressure to not just keep up, but to exceed, takes hold? When things take a tragic turn, Sean realizes that the price of this accelerated life is higher than he could have ever imagined.
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By Bronwen Hruska
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Bronwen Hruska
All rights reserved.
Sean Benning had put in his time. He couldn't risk being caught in another conversation about ERB percentiles and afterschool activities that cost more than he made in a month. Forty-five minutes was his limit. He downed the dregs of his second gin and tonic before ditching the glass on a mirrored tabletop, all the while clutching his jacket in the other hand. He cast a longing look at the front door, which glowed like a vision through a sudden parting in the overdressed crowd. He allowed himself to be pulled toward it, his pulse slowing with the knowledge that he'd be out soon.
"There you are," a voice growled. A tanned hand grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back. Jolted from his vision of escape, he spun around, almost slamming into a shiny white armoire that was camouflaged in the all-white room. Cheryl Eisner stood too close, her dark eyes softer, drunker, than he'd seen them. "I've been looking for you," she said, her voice rising above the party chitchat.
He panicked. "The Annual Fund donations," he said, stalling. "They're not due yet, are they?" But he knew they'd been due last week. "I lost the form." Not that he was planning on giving the school a cent above the thirty-eight thousand dollars his in-laws were already paying. He couldn't fathom the income you'd need to live decently in New York, pay full freight for even one kid—though who had just one these days?—plus make a big donation to the school every year. But people did it. Lots of people.
Cheryl frowned and shooed away the topic with a graceful swat of the air. "Let's not talk about the Annual Fund. It's too boring." Her son, Marcus, was in Toby's class. Until tonight, Sean had only seen her in tight designer workout clothes at school pickup and drop-off. Now, she wore a fitted gold dress. With the heels, she must have been six-two, almost eye level. Looking a woman in the eye like this was rare, and strangely exciting. She focused on his jacket. "You're not going, are you?" She touched the bare skin just below her clavicle and above the two scoops of cleavage being offered on the gold tray of her dress.
It was almost distracting enough to make him forget the front door.
He tried not to stare as she stroked her own skin. "I was just heading out." Were they real? Fake? Toby's face popped into his head like a censored bar over her breasts. "My ... the sitter ... I've got to get back," he stumbled.
She gave him a strange smile and pulled him past the parents of Toby's classmates, who he barely recognized in their party attire, toward a table spread with caviar and blini. "First, you've got to try this," she said. Somehow he'd missed the food on his first sweep of the room. She plunged her index finger into the ornate crystal bowl and held a dripping fingerful of caviar in front of his lips. He was famished, but he pressed them closed instinctively. Marcus had always been a nervous kid. He could see why. "Go ahead," she cooed. "Let me in."
If she hadn't looked so determined, poised with fish eggs on her finger, he would have been sure this was all a joke. At every turn, parents gossiped, laughed, and shrieked at each others' witty anecdotes. He hadn't heard one witty anecdote the entire evening. The good news was that nobody seemed to be watching him. Still, what was he doing? Was she actually coming on to him?
Cheryl waited patiently.
Really, what choice did he have? He opened his mouth and she thrust her finger inside. The little black eggs exploded with sickeningly salty pops as he remembered he hated caviar. She ran her finger along the roof of his mouth and around his upper lip and by the time she removed it, he felt like he'd had some kind of internal exam.
She plucked two glasses from the bar. "Now we have to drink champagne."
A waiter had handed him a drink the moment he walked through the door. A second drink had magically appeared shortly after that. He was comfortably numb. Any more alcohol would push him toward drunk. "I'm okay," he said. Besides, why would he drink champagne with Marcus's hot mother? Wasn't that a bad idea?
"Come on." She pressed the champagne glass into his hand. "I have a toast. Please?"
"Sure," he said, charmed by the please. "What are we toasting?"
"To Wonder Dad," she said with an ironic smile. "The man who does it all."
"Trust me, I'm not—"
"Drink," she demanded. "It's my toast."
He wasn't Wonder Dad. Didn't want to be Wonder Dad. He wasn't sure he wanted to be toasting with Cheryl at all. But he drank nonetheless. The champagne tickled going down. "I'll see you at school," he said with an apologetic smile. "I've got to get back."
He took a few steps toward the door before she dropped the bomb. "You've heard about the new teacher, right?"
He stopped. Turned. "They found a new teacher?"
She nodded in slow motion and didn't let go of his gaze. She waited while he digested the information.
A real teacher could turn everything around for Toby. He retraced his steps on the white shag carpet. "Who is she? When does she start?"
"It's a little loud out here," Cheryl said, and walked away from him. After a moment, she looked back to summon him with a sideways glance. Like a dog chasing a bone, he followed her past a mixed media installation that looked an awful lot like the one he'd seen last year at the Whitney. This wasn't a living room, it was an Architectural Digest spread. How could you raise kids in an all-white room? What about crayons, ketchup, barf?
He rounded the corner and when he didn't see her, he panicked that he'd lost his line to the only piece of gossip he cared about.
A stage whisper hit him from the guest bathroom. "In here."
Against his better judgment, he followed her voice into the room that blazed with tiny spotlights suspended from thin wires. She locked the door behind him and propped her ass against the sink. "Much quieter," she said.
He couldn't help laughing at that one. "It is a quiet room." A candle on a glass shelf made the bathroom smell like pumpkin pie. He liked pumpkin pie. Still, it was weird. He leaned against a monogrammed towel. "So." He looked at her and wondered if he was really going to go through with this.
She kicked off her heels and rubbed his calf with her foot. "So what?"
"So what do you know about the new teacher?"
"She's not from New York." Cheryl hooked her finger through his belt loop and tugged. Subtlety was not Cheryl's forte. But she had other qualities.
He took a step toward her. "What's her name?" Turning the banal conversation into something like foreplay was easier than he'd anticipated.
"Jessica Harper." She pushed him away an arm's length and cast her brown eyes down. Not to the ground. "She starts Monday." She pulled him close again, running her hands down his chest and around his back. It had been a long time since someone had touched him like this. Touched him at all. He hadn't realized how much he missed it. Soon, her hands traveled down to his ass, which she began to massage. Almost as soon as she did, it began vibrating.
"Answer it," she said, running both hands down the backs of his thighs. "It might be Toby."
Toby was probably fine. Almost definitely fine. "I can call him back ..."
She slid the phone out of his back pocket and opened it, holding it to his ear. Say hello, she mouthed, and traced her finger down his chest.
"Hello?" he said, locking eyes with her and wondering when his life had become this strange.
"Why aren't you calling me back?" Ellie's voice hit him like a bucket of cold water. He must have backed away from Cheryl, because she tightened her hold on him. Undeterred, she teased her hand under his shirt.
"We need to talk about this medication thing," Ellie was saying.
"I can't talk right now. This isn't a good time—"
"There's never a good time," Ellie snapped. "This is our child's health."
"Look, Ellie, I'm never putting him on that stuff. Never." He'd been louder than he meant to be and made an effort to bring down the volume. "Conversation's over."
"Grow up, Sean." Ellie's voice condescended through the phone from wherever she was. "Dr. Shineman's email said he might need to be on Ritalin. You can't just ignore that. Get him evaluated. Jesus. It's a no-brainer. See what a doctor has to say, then we make the decision."
Cheryl pinched his nipples, which would have felt great if Ellie hadn't been yelling in his ear. "The no-brainer," he said, "is that you have no say in this. You gave that up when you disappeared." Cheryl lifted his shirt and started biting at his abs. The game was kind of fun. He tried to stay on point. "I really have to go. You caught me right in the middle of something."
"Don't you dare hang up on—"
He flipped the phone closed and threw it on the fluffy bathmat.
"Trouble on the ranch?" Cheryl asked between kisses that seemed to be heading south along his abdomen.
He wasn't going to let Ellie mess up whatever this was. She'd messed up too much already. "Wrong number," he said, and Cheryl seemed to appreciate the absurdity of the lie.
"I hate when that happens."
"Very inconvenient," he said, and tried to blot out Ellie's voice, their conversation, the image of her that was now lodged in his mind. "So ... where were we?"
"The new teacher." Cheryl's smile came off as a challenge.
"Right. The new teacher." He leaned against the basin, his face inches from hers. "So. What kind of credentials does she have?"
"Excellent," Cheryl said, breathily. "They're excellent." He wondered if all parent socials were this social and if it had been a good idea to let Ellie come to these alone for so many years. He now had a clear view down Cheryl's dress. There they were again. He fought the urge to squeeze them.
Then he thought: Why? Ellie had walked out on him. He and Cheryl were adults who happened to be primed for sex and conveniently locked in this fancy bathroom for exactly that reason. This kind of thing didn't happen every day. In fact, nothing like this had ever happened to him. Not to mention it had been a hell of a long time since he'd had sex. He missed it—craved it. Forget everything else that was messed up with Ellie being gone—not being able to have sex was by far the worst. He deserved this random encounter. He should push away all the doubt and just go with it. Liking Cheryl was not required. And she was making it so easy. There was no room for misinterpretation, just a clear and straightforward invitation—verging on an order—to screw her.
She yanked on his belt buckle and a laser-like flash blinded him. When he got his vision back, he realized that the gumball-size rock on her finger was reflecting the overhead lights into rainbow beams. Kind of like a superhero ring. He'd never seen Cheryl's husband and now he was forced to wonder how big the guy was and if he could throw a punch. Then he remembered she was married to a famous neurosurgeon who traveled around the world saving lives. A guy like that would never risk messing up his hands.
"He doesn't care," she said. She was a mind reader, too, apparently. "We have an understanding."
An understanding sounded complicated. Or very simple. Who was he to argue with an understanding? He helped her undo his jeans and she pressed herself against him. She slid her tongue into his mouth and for the second time in fifteen minutes he felt like he was being probed.
His body wanted to plunge ahead, but his brain kept nagging at him. He could still walk away. He could walk away from this incredibly hot woman who wanted him. But he was a single father now, he reminded himself. It was hard to meet women. Besides, he might not have a chance like this again anytime soon if he didn't jump on it—jump on Cheryl—right now.
It turned out he didn't even need to make the decision. Cheryl was already sinking to her knees. He watched the top of her head tilt as she lowered her glossed lips onto him.
He couldn't help letting out a groan. It had been four months since anyone had touched, much less handled, him with such authority. And to think, he'd almost ditched the party. He'd remembered to prepare Toby's dinner. He'd gotten Toby in the shower early, but he'd completely forgotten about hiring a babysitter.
"Oh well," he'd told Toby only two hours ago. "Guess I'll have to skip it."
"Call Gloria in 6A," he'd countered. "She's always free."
"Why don't we play Monopoly instead? You can win."
"It's how Mom used to get me playdates," Toby said, reasonably. "You have to go."
Life was so unfair when you were a grownup and so simple when you were an eight-year-old kid. Sean had dialed Gloria's number, which Toby had written down for him on a Famiglia Pizza napkin that had come with his dinner. He'd go, but he wouldn't like it. The whole thing had sounded like a gigantic waste of time, not to mention boring.
So he'd been wrong on that last point. Cheryl's mouth was now vibrating with encouraging moans. She really didn't need to be so encouraging. In fact, he realized, panicking, everything was moving too fast. He thought of dead puppies, Toby's tutoring bills. His in-laws. None of it was working. He was dangerously close. He had to stall. He pulled away, hoisted her onto the speckled stone counter that surrounded the sunken basin of the sink and unzipped her dress. He was not going to leave the parent social without knowing if they were real. It would also buy him recovery time. If he was going to make the monumental mistake he was about to make, he was sure as hell going to make it last.
He'd always assumed silicone would be a turnoff. How wrong he'd been. They were dense, fun to play with—a little like water balloons but softer and they stood up all by themselves.
Condoms. It had been years since he'd needed a condom. But he needed one now, and fast. He couldn't imagine anyone keeping condoms in their mansion's guest bathroom. He reached past her toward the medicine cabinet, on the off chance.
"I got it," she said. She put his hand back on the water balloon, then leaned over and grabbed her gold bag from the toilet seat. She pulled out a condom wrapped in matching gold foil that she tore expertly with her teeth and rolled onto him with the speed and precision of a NASCAR crew at a pit stop.
He reached between her legs and pushed aside a sliver of silky fabric that counted as her underwear. Her muscular thighs wrapped around his waist and before he knew it, he was in.
Then he remembered his mandate, the reason he was here in the first place. "Does Marcus want to have a playdate with Toby sometime?"
He wasn't sure if the yes she gasped had to do with the playdate or the thrusting. Soon, she was clawing his skin with her red nails and arching her double-jointed back. He realized, with a whole new level of respect for Pilates or whatever exercise classes she seemed to take all day, every day, that Cheryl's workouts had even toned her muscles in there. There was no doubt about it, he wasn't going to last long.
He tried, futilely, to hang on, but at a certain point it was impossible.
"No," Cheryl ordered, through heavy breathing. "Not yet." She was just gearing up. But there was no turning back. It was all about release. No more than five seconds later, the whole thing was over. He crumpled onto her, spent and relieved. But the relief lasted about as long as he had.
"Don't worry about it," Cheryl said, nudging him off her and snapping her underwear into place. She ran her hand along the side of his face, shook her head with a wistful sigh, and let herself out of the bathroom.
He slid to the floor and thumped his head repeatedly against the shiny tiles. Though most of the blood had left his brain, he was able to focus on the fact that he'd have to see Cheryl every day, twice a day—reliving the mortification of this very moment—until Toby was old enough to take himself to and from school. It would be years. Years of remembering how he'd failed at this basic act. He realized with horror that she might tell the other mothers.
He was deflating quickly, until the condom hung sadly between his legs. He peeled it off. Given a second chance, he'd definitely last longer. He toyed with the idea of getting her back on the sink to prove it to her but soon abandoned the idea. He'd had enough humiliation for one night. It was time to go home.
Excerpted from Accelerated by Bronwen Hruska. Copyright © 2012 Bronwen Hruska. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bronwen Hruska, the publisher of Soho Press, has worked as a journalist and screenwriter for twenty years. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MORE magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan, the Village Voice, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Manhattan with her two sons.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Everyone can and should learn more about how our schools are encouraging the use of (and the results of use of) ritalin by our young children. The author of Accelerated, Bronwen Hruska, does a very good job of making the reader aware of the dangers.
Once the reader gets past and accepts the initial premise of this novel, that there is an almost universal conspiracy to boost children’s learning power by declaring them victims of ADD or ADHD and prescribing Ritalin or similar drugs, then it becomes a heart-warming story. Sean Benn, a single father (the result of his wife’s abandoning him and their young son, Toby), is pressured to dose the boy, against his better judgment, after having refused for quite some time, It should be noted that Toby’s best friend had gone into a coma and died. The school told everyone it was the result of a peanut allergy. Shortly afterward, Toby fell during PT, suffering from an arrhythmia, and ended up in the hospital, comatose. From that point the plot takes off in dramatic fashion. Certainly the novel’s raison d’etre is a significant topic. When over-medication is routinely used to force students to accelerate their ability to learn, something is wrong. So exposure is warranted. But to raise the possibility that this technique is so widespread across the country, aided and abetted by pharmaceutical companies, while worrisome, is kind of hard to believe. But maybe such exaggeration is needed to make the point. And perhaps “worrisome” is required as well. Written with a smooth hand and tightly plotted, the book is recommended.