Regent was over the next knoll and at the end of the world. Neverland. Society’s answer for the fatherless, the penniless, and the hopeless. I was number four hundred and twelve. Four because it was my last year, my last chance. Twelve because... I don’t know. Maybe I had fought my way out of six foster homes and six schools, and purgatory kept count.
It was rumored that Regent had been upstate New York’s finest insane asylum back in the sixties. A Victorian mansion set on massive grounds and painted yellow to soothe the inmates. But the government had closed it down in ’78 for improper practices in psychiatrics. In a civil suit, a few of the staff were permitted to stay at a substantial pay cut to develop Upstate’s nearly finest boarding school. Or so the rumor spread that the teachers seemed better equipped to administer Thorazine than to explain algebra.
Now, the same stoic lions frozen on their haunches that guarded the entrance for the mentally deranged adult poised themselves before the socially unhinged teenager. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The faded clapboard had weathered the storms, but the crows had besieged the barren yard and driven out the melody of the songbirds.
If, in fact, the songbirds had been there at all.
The blue sedan brought me to Regent that morning when the clouds rolled in. The year nuclear testing began in Nevada, crack cocaine was introduced to LA, and we lost Marvin Gaye. The rusted bumper pulled away without a glance back. Only the I Love Gumby sticker, fixed askew, gave a determined wave goodbye.
With suitcase tight in hand, the one that had been packed for me in festive urgency five o’clock that morning, I took two steps away from the school and toward the open road ready to make my getaway. To mark out my own destiny. Maybe even find my father. The note left on a diner’s placemat and presented to me on my tenth birthday by my foster family was the only authentic token of my father I possessed. Or so I thought. I still hadn’t read it. Unfolding it would have petrified anything I did not want to know. Keeping it sealed left it sacred. But like a pebble in a shoe, it never let me forget it was there.
My foster family said he never visited. Or called. That fame, not fatherhood, was what he sought. Fame down in the village. I learned later that meant Greenwich Village, in New York City, and that his fame meant selling paintings on the street. At least that’s what the foster parents said. I never met him. And I never read the note.
My prospects of escape faded in those few short steps down the road when a pinched voice squeaked out my name. The voice attached itself to a wiry woman in spinster black standing on the front porch. She had appeared from nowhere. A sudden apparition in a bad dream.
I squinted against the dust.
Poised on the edge of the top step, the lady leaned into the wind, her toes teetering over the stair’s face. When she spoke, the words resounded unhindered, even with the wind, as though she spoke directly into my ear.
“Welcome to Regent, sir. We’ve been waiting for you.”
My sneakers planted themselves in the dry gravel. My open flannel hung loose over a white T-shirt and mimicked the flapping of her dress. A flagrant signal to the stand-off.
Her smile stretched taut as though we played a game. A cat and mouse game. Where, should I have the courage to run, she would have the delight to chase. She folded her arms and widened her stance. “Come, now. Let’s go inside, shall we?”
One last glance at my lost getaway, I hefted my case and followed the sparse woman up the steps of Regent. Because that was what I had been taught to do. Follow.
A boy in a union suit sat on the top step. I hadn’t seen him until I was abreast of him. With a hand over his brow to shield himself from the dust, he scanned my passing. He said nothing, and the lady gave him no heed.
I was led past the lions and through the massive doors.
The warmth in the entryway fought to hold on in the gaping spaces washed cold. Crown molding with fancy carvings lost their style in the chipping paint and cracked walls. A carpeted runner trailed down the broad hall, merely a footpath to the expanse. It gave up midway and let the wood planks carry on unhindered in a network of offshoots, one of which led down a narrow hall to the office of headmaster. The wooden sign hanging across the hall’s entrance marked the way. Clearly. Marked so you would know. If you needed to.
Down this tight hall, I was escorted. Pressed through as though I had drunk Alice’s cup and chased the white rabbit. The spinster before me, a residuum of some withered queen. She tapped on the door with a boney knuckle, and we entered.
The headmaster’s stately quarters had obviously hoarded all of Regent’s glory. The parched wood had been oiled, the patches fixed, and the light given access in broad washes of cleaned panes that reached from ceiling to floor. An enormous desk, as wide-girthed as its owner who stood before it, failed to fill the great room. I was certain the broad door at the back supplied his entry and exit, for it was unlikely he fit down the narrow hall that brought me to him.
“Justin Davis. Davis, Justin. Justin. Here we are.” The gentleman writhed before me as though a slippery fish had found its way inside his ample pants as he confiscated my small suitcase and tucked it out of sight. The movement jiggled his double chin and plastered a jovial smile to his pale lips. “Welcome to Regent, Justin Davis.”
For the last three years, my name had been Justin Davis. I had gotten used to it by then, but it failed to generate any sentiment of ownership. When I was Justin Michaels, I was too little to remember. Reports said my growth was delayed. I could not hold my head up or sit without support at the expected time. It also said my mother, who died of her own accord a week after my birth, was to blame. The barbiturates that had found their way into my blood stream had apparently mixed with my mother’s postpartum depression and made a compelling dissertation for suicide. Maybe, in light of that, I did not want to hold my head up.
When I was Justin Geoff, I acquired too many broken bones to justify my placement. Social Services hesitated to pull me, though. There were so few options, and Mr. Geoff held a stable job. It didn’t matter if he drank like a fish or swore like a sailor. That was only after five in the evening. Whenever the state came to call, he was quite cordial and nearly reverent. A little manhandling was easily overlooked. Especially with a charge that apparently required an occasional knock to keep in line.
I think I was a Johnson once too, and maybe a Reynolds. I don’t remember the rest.
“Well, now.” The headmaster slid a file off his desk and into his oversized hands. He introduced himself as Mr. Jay W. Becket, or Superintendent Becket, guardian of the misguided. “Foster care. Hmm? Some trouble with the courts. Says here you’re seventeen. From Batavia. What’d you do to get in here, kid?” He flipped through the pages of my file with my name emblazoned on the tab in black marker, searching for his own answer. “Arson? Set fire to buildings? Torture small animals? What?” His lifted brow and protruding tongue anticipated the seedy details I denied him. He hugged the folder to himself and scratched at his hand, scrutinizing me like a puzzle to be savored. “I bet you stole some diamonds off a rich lady for drugs, hmm? Or did you kill somebody?”
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
My resolve set Mr. Becket’s belly to joggling in a trapped laugh that never reached his mouth. “Of course, you’re not, Mr. Davis. Of course. But no one comes to Regent by mistake. This is a very special place where special people, like you, come to visit.” His eyes glistened as he spoke. “Our job is to make you all better whether you want it or not.” He pointed the folder’s corner at me. “The perfect gem for society’s strand of pearls—that’s what you’ll be. A gem. I promise you that.”
He stared at me. Or through me. As if lost in thought. A pause before he snapped back and remembered I was there. “Tea. Let’s have some tea. Even involuntary has its perks.” He laughed at his own joke.
Mr. Becket lifted two clay cups from a tray on his desk and handed one to me. “You must be thirsty.” He sipped his own and watched me over the lip of the mug, eyebrows raised, expecting I would do the same. I drank it. But rather than quench my thirst, it seemed to vaporize the remaining saliva in my mouth.
I never did like tea.
With heavy breath to traverse the space, Mr. Becket pulled an item from his pocket and moved to the corner of the room. It was the first I noticed the doll house set on a small table. A simple, two-story house with three sides and an open front. Nothing fancy or embellished. The homemade kind. The house was furnished with wood block replicas of tables, chairs, couches, and beds. He replaced a doll, which I now saw was the object in his hand, back into the house to complete the family of dolls.
I had seen them used before. Play therapy, the social worker had called it when she presented the dolls to me on more than one occasion. She told me to place the dolls in the house, in the rooms they belonged, and tell her about each one. When I pocketed the mother doll and ripped off the arm of the father, she took copious notes. I guess she found what she was looking for.
I lost Mr. Becket’s movements during my contemplation. He was on the opposite side of the room when my attention returned. He produced from a side closet a plastic-wrapped bundle. In a warm gesture, compliments of Regent, I received two gray work suits fit for a Pennsylvania coal miner, four white t-shirts, four pairs of underwear, and three pairs of socks.
And I lost everything else.
“Okay, drop ‘em. No civilian clothes past my door. Don’t know what you could be hiding in there. Let’s go. Off.”
I hesitated, then took off my clothes.
He kicked them away and nodded at the new packet. “Put your name on all those. Things go missing pretty darn quick here.” He handed me a black marker from his desk.
I tried to scribble my initials on the tags and cover myself up at the same time.
“Did you know your mama?” he said. “Did you get your bright blue eyes from her?”
The question rattled me. Not so much because his monologue held chords of familiarity it shouldn’t. But, that I had not thought of my mother’s eye color until then. I had always seen her only as an image undefined. A hazy form without detail, yet holding the essence of who she was. Now, I thought about the details. Did I have my mother’s eyes?
I shoved my legs into the work suit wishing it would swallow me alive. That it would dump me back out on the drive and allow ten more seconds to run. I would have run that time.
“Very good. Very good.” Mr. Becket reached into a drawer inside his desk and pulled out a pair of scissors. He took my wrist in his meaty hands. “You won’t be needing these here, Mr. Davis.” With one powerhouse squeeze, he cut through my stockpile of woven bracelets.
They fell to the planked floor.
He scuffed them toward the garbage bin with his shiny black shoe and grasped the corded cross around my neck. “Or this. No need for embellishments on such a handsome young man.” It met the same fate. “We’re going to get along just fine, you and I. Just fine.”
With a wide grin swallowed by cheeky folds, he snapped around my wrist a metal band with the number 412 engraved in its surface. Once on, the band could not be removed. At least, not by me. He held my shoulders and tipped himself back to land eye-to-eye.
“There we go. Snug as a bug in a rug.” He straightened and winked. “Now, I wouldn’t try to leave with that bracelet on. Could be quite shocking.” The twinkle in his eye said he might like to see that.
Without warning, Mr. Becket embraced me in a vice grip so unnaturally strong I could not escape. “Welcome, welcome, Justin Davis.”