Read an Excerpt
They looked like the perfect family.
This was what the boy thought as he stood beside his father’s open grave, as he listened to the hired minister read platitudes from the Bible. Only a small group had gathered on that warm and buggy June day to mourn the passing of Montague Saul, no more than a dozen people, many of whom the boy had just met. For the past six months, he had been away at boarding school, and today he was seeing some of these people for the very first time. Most of them did not interest him in the least.
But his uncle’s family—they interested him very much. They were worth studying.
Dr. Peter Saul looked very much like his dead brother Montague, slender and cerebral in owlish glasses, brown hair thinning toward inevitable baldness. His wife, Amy, had a round, sweet face, and she kept darting anxious looks at her fifteen-year-old nephew, as though aching to wrap her arms around him and smother him with a hug. Their son, Teddy, was ten years old, all skinny arms and legs. A little clone of Peter Saul, right down to the same owlish glasses.
Finally, there was the daughter, Lily. Sixteen years old.
Tendrils of her hair had come loose from the ponytail and now clung to her face in the heat. She looked uncomfortable in her black dress, and she kept shifting coltishly back and forth, as though preparing to bolt. As though she’d rather be anywhere than in this cemetery, waving away buzzing insects.
They look so normal, so average, the boy thought. So different from me. Then Lily’s gaze suddenly met his, and he felt a tremor of surprise. Of mutual recognition. In that instant, he could almost feel her gaze penetrating the darkest fissures of his brain, examining all the secret places that no one else had ever seen. That he’d never allowed them to see.
Disquieted, he looked away. Focused, instead, on the other people standing around the grave: His father’s housekeeper. The attorney. The two next-door neighbors. Mere acquaintances who were here out of a sense of propriety, not affection. They knew Montague Saul only as the quiet scholar who’d recently returned from Cyprus, who spent his days fussing over books and maps and little pieces of pottery. They did not really know the man. Just as they did not really know his son.
At last the service ended, and the gathering moved toward the boy, like an amoeba preparing to engulf him in sympathy, to tell him how sorry they were that he’d lost his father. And so soon after moving to the United States.
“At least you have family here to help you,” said the minister.
Family? Yes, I suppose these people are my family, the boy thought, as little Teddy shyly approached, urged forward by his mother.
“You’re going to be my brother now,” said Teddy.
“Mom has your room all ready for you. It’s right next to mine.”
“But I’m staying here. In my father’s house.”
Bewildered, Teddy looked at his mother. “Isn’t he coming home with us?”
Amy Saul quickly said, “You really can’t live all by yourself, dear. You’re only fifteen. Maybe you’ll like it so much in Purity, you’ll want to stay with us.”
“My school’s in Connecticut.”
“Yes, but the school year’s over now. In September, if you want to return to your boarding school, of course you can. But for the summer, you’ll come home with us.”
“I won’t be alone here. My mother will come for me.”
There was a long silence. Amy and Peter looked at each other, and the boy could guess what they were thinking. His mother abandoned him ages ago.
“She is coming for me,” he insisted.
Uncle Peter said, gently, “We’ll talk about it later, son.”
In the night, the boy laid awake in his bed, in his father’s town house, listening to the voices of his aunt and uncle murmuring downstairs in the study. The same study where Montague Saul had labored these past months to translate his fragile little scraps of papyrus. The same study where, five days ago, he’d had a stroke and collapsed at his desk. Those people should not be in there, among his father’s precious things. They were invaders in his house.
“He’s still just a boy, Peter. He needs a family.”
“We can’t exactly drag him back to Purity if he doesn’t want to come with us.”
“When you’re only fifteen, you have no choice in the matter. Adults have to make the decisions.”
The boy rose from bed and slipped out of his room. He crept halfway down the stairs to listen in to the conversation.
“And really, how many adults has he known? Your brother didn’t exactly qualify. He was so wrapped up in his old mummy linens, he probably never noticed there was a child underfoot.”
“That’s not fair, Amy. My brother was a good man.”
“Good, but clueless. I can’t imagine what kind of woman would dream of having a child with him. And then she leaves the boy behind for Monty to raise? I don’t understand any woman who’d do that.”
“Monty didn’t do such a bad job raising him. The boy’s getting top marks in school.”
“That’s your measurement for what makes a good father? The fact that the boy gets top marks?”
“He’s also a poised young man. Look how well he held up at the service.”
“He’s numb, Peter. Did you see a single emotion on his face today?”
“Monty was like that, too.”
“Cold-blooded, you mean?”
“No, intellectual. Logical.”
“But underneath it all, you know that boy has got to be hurting. It makes me want to cry, how much he needs his mother right now. How he keeps insisting she’ll come back for him, when we know she won’t.”
“We don’t know that.”
“We’ve never even met the woman! Monty just writes us from Cairo one day, to tell us he has a brand-new son. For all we know, he plucked him up from the reeds, like baby Moses.”
The boy heard the floor creak above him, and he glanced toward the top of the stairs. He was startled to see his cousin Lily staring down at him over the banister. She was watching him, studying him, as if he were some exotic creature she’d never before encountered and she was trying to decide if he was dangerous.
“Oh!” said Aunt Amy. “You’re up!”
His aunt and uncle had just come out of the study, and they were standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at him. Looking a little dismayed, too, at the possibility that he had overheard their entire conversation.
“Are you feeling all right, dear?” said Amy.
“It’s so late. Maybe you should go back to bed now?”
But he didn’t move. He paused on the stairs for a moment, wondering what it would be like to live with these people. What he might learn from them. It would make the summer interesting, until his mother came for him.
He said, “Aunt Amy, I’ve made up my mind.”
“About my summer, and where I’d like to spend it.”
She instantly assumed the worst. “Please don’t be too hasty! We have a really nice house, right on the lake, and you’d have your own room. At least come for a visit before you decide.”
“But I’ve decided to come stay with you.”
His aunt paused, temporarily stunned. Then her face lit up in a smile, and she hurried up the steps to give him a hug. She smelled like Dove soap and Breck shampoo. So average, so ordinary. Then a grinning Uncle Peter gave him an affectionate clap on the shoulder, his way of welcoming a new son. Their happiness was like a web of spun sugar, drawing him into their universe, where all was love and light and laughter.
“The kids will be so glad you’re coming back with us!” said Amy.
He glanced toward the top of the stairs, but Lily was no longer there. She had slipped away, unnoticed. I will have to keep my eye on her, he thought. Because already, she’s keeping her eye on me.
“You’re part of our family now,” said Amy.
As they walked up the stairs together, she was already telling him her plans for the summer. All the places they’d take him, all the special meals they’d cook for him when they got back home. She sounded happy, even giddy, like a mother with her brand-new baby.
Amy Saul had no idea what they were about to bring home with them.