That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperature was merciless: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, then a hundred in the shade. It was heat to die, go nuts or spawn in. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn't keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up. In the parched suburbs, ice cream trucks plinked their baby tunes into streets that sweated tar. Down at the harbor, the sea reflected the sun in tiny, barbaric mirrors. Asphyxiated, you longed for rain. It didn't come.
But other things came, seemingly at random. The teenage killer, Bethany Krall, was one of them. If I didn't know, back then, that turbulence obeys specific rules, I know it now. During just about every one of those nights, I'd have dreams that were so vivid they felt digitally enhanced. Sometimes I could do more than just walk and run and jump. I could do cartwheels; I could practically fly. I'd be an acrobat, flinging my body across the empty air, then floating in the stratosphere like a Chagall maiden. Other times I'd find myself with Alex. He'd be throwing his head back to laugh, as if nothing had happened. Or we'd be having urgent sex, in a thrash of limbs. Or engaging in the other thing we'd so quickly become experts at: fighting. Viciously. Also as if nothing had happened.
Then I'd wake. I'd lie there, my upper body still sweating, the mail-order fan strafing the air across my naked skin, and let the new day infiltrate in stages. The last stage, before I rose to wash and dress and fight my tangled hair, like someone emerging from a date-rape drugging, would be the one in which I'd dutifully count my blessings. This folksy little ritual stayed brief because the way I saw it, they didn't add up to much.
When the skies finally broke, it felt biblical, megalomaniacal, as though orchestrated from on high by an irate Jehovah. On the coasts, cliffs subsided, tipping soil and rubble and silt onto the beaches, where they lodged in defiant heaps. Charcoal clouds erupted on the horizon and massed into precarious metropolises of air. Out at sea, beyond the gray stone bulwarks of the port, zigzags of lightning electrocuted the water, bringing poltergeist winds that sucked random objects up to whirl and dump. Passionate gusts punched at the sails of moored boats and then headed inland, flattening corn, uprooting trees, smashing hop silos and storage barns, whisking up torn garbage bags that pirouetted in the sky like the ghostly spirits of retail folly. Maverick weather was becoming the norm across the globe: we'd all learned that by now, and we were already frustrated by its theatrical attention-seeking, the sheer woe of its extremes. Cause and effect. Get used to the way A leads to B. Get used to living in interesting times. Learn that nothing is random. Watch out for tipping point. Look behind you: perhaps it's been and gone.
Psychic revolution, worlds upended, interrogations of the status quo, the eternal proximity of hell: subjects close to my heart at this point. Popular wisdom declares that it's a mistake to make major changes in the wake of a catastrophic event in your personal life. That you should stay close to your loved ones—or, in their absence, to those best placed and most willing to hold your hand through the horror-show of your new, reconfigured life. So why, in the aftermath of my accident, had I so obstinately done the opposite? I was so sure, when I made it, that my decision to quit London was the right one, arrived at after a cool mental listing of the pros and cons. But my Chagall-maiden dreams and the restlessness that infected me seemed evidence of another, less welcome possibility: that once again I had sabotaged my life—as thoroughly and as definitively as only a professional psychologist can. My brain, working overtime with denial, was a sick centrifuge operating at full tilt.
In the mornings, the modest skyline of Hadport fizzes gently with coastal fog that, pierced by the first light, can take on a metaphysical cast. There's a spritz of bright air meeting water, of delicate chemical auras dancing around one another before mingling and ascending to the stratosphere. Conservative-minded angels, conscious of their celestial pension constraints and forced to relocate, might choose a town like this to spend their sunset years. So might my once energetic and cultured father, if he'd kept his marbles long enough to leaf through brochures about retirement complexes, instead of Alzheimering his way into a nursing home to spend his waking hours watching Cartoon Network and drooling onto a plastic bib: as sorry an end for a former diplomat as can be imagined. If you venture out early enough you can taste the sharp tang of ozone in your mouth. "Decent parking," my practical pre-la-la father would have said, if he'd accompanied me on my morning sorties along the gum-studded pavements of my new hometown. "Useful in your situation, Gabrielle."
Later in the day, his high opinion might downgrade itself a notch. Hadport, being near the Channel tunnel, has a high quota of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers: the bed-and-breakfast population, the shallow-rooted underclass about which the Courier opines on behalf of "heritage citizens" who have graduated from compassion fatigue to a higher realm of pathological resentment that the paper's editorials refer to as justified indignation. As the day rolls itself out, the trash cans fill and then erupt with Starbucks cups, gossip magazines, buckled beer cans, burger cartons gaping open like polystyrene clams: the husks of what nourishes the British soul. With dusk come mangy foxes, slinking out to scavenge in the drilling heat.
In my new life, I spend most weekdays two kilometers outside town, beyond a network of clogged arterial roads and mini-rotaries. Skirt the brownfield site along East Road, past the Sleepeezee warehouse, the Souls Harbour Apostolic Church, the fuel cell plant, and a construction rumored to be generating a pioneer high-rise pig farm, turn right by the giant tower that, from a certain angle, appears to straddle, rodeolike, the World of Leather, and you'll spot a discreet signpost to my place of work.
Somebody should probably have taken a wrecking ball to it long ago. Built in the early twentieth century, the white mansion, seen through the electrified perimeter fence, resembles a decrepit cruise ship marooned among clusters of monkey puzzles, cypress, and spiky palms: Edwardian, Gulf Stream trees. It was once a hotel for convalescents prescribed sea air, but now its white-brick facade and scattered outbuildings are zigzagged with cracks like ancient marzipan. Wisteria and honeysuckle meander up wrought-iron balconies, trellises, and gazebos blistered by rust. You might hope to find Sleeping Beauty in there, on display in a glass case, somewhere just beyond Reception. But instead, you'll be entering a museum display of dados, cornices, and ceiling roses barnacled to peeling plasterwork. The building manufactures its own air, air that has not quite caught up with the scented-candle culture of modern times. Forest Glade room freshener predominates, struggling to mask deeper strata of Toilet Duck, dry rot, and the sad-sweet chemical smell of psychic suffering.
Welcome to Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital, home to a hundred of the most dangerous children in the country.
Among them, Bethany Krall.
From my ground-floor office, you can see a row of white turbines in the distance, rooted in the sea like elegant food mixers. I admire the grace of their engineering, their slim discretion. I have thought about painting them but the urge is too theoretical, too distanced from the part of me that still functions. I often stare out at the horizon, mesmerized by their smoothly industrious response to the wind. Sometimes, when I have a very specific form of cabin fever, I copy their movements, whirling my arms in rhythm-not to capture energy but to release it. Glimpsing myself in a corner of the mirror, I'll notice my hair, my eyes, my mouth, the intense tilt of my face, but I know better than to set any store by my looks, such as they are. They've done me no good.
When I first encounter Bethany Krall I am two weeks into what has been billed as a six-month posting, filling in for Joy McConey, a psychotherapist who has left the institution on a sabbatical that I assume to be a euphemism for some unspoken disgrace. None of my new colleagues seems keen to discuss her. There's a high turnover in places that have a reputation for being human trash cans. Most of us are on flexible contracts. This is not a prestige appointment. There are hints of new cutbacks that could lead to Oxsmith's closing for good. But raw from my enforced exclusion from what rehab called "the cut and thrust," I can't afford to be choosy about my employment. In the absence of a long-term plan, part of my persuasive argument to myself in deciding to resettle is that a short-term strategy in a strange place is better than none in a familiar one.
Amid the broken staplers, the withered spider plant, and the old styrofoam coffee cups of Joy McConey's vacated office is a greeting card, the kind that's "left blank for your personal message." Inside, in small, frantic-looking handwriting, someone has stated, cryptically: "To Joy. Who truly believed." Truly believed in what? God? An end to the grief in the Middle East? An inmate's psychotic fantasies? The signature is illegible. I am no great fan of spider plants. But something—my frail, inconsistent inner Buddha, perhaps—prevents me from taking life in a gratuitous fashion, even if it's low in the food chain. Let the plant live. But don't encourage the fucking thing. It seems that mold can grow on coffee despite a plastic lid. I pour the dregs on the pot's asbestoid soil and chuck the cup into the bin to join Joy's card.
I am not a nice person.
I have gleaned this much from my fraught fellow workers: I've been assigned Bethany Krall as one of my main cases because no one else wants to deal with her. As the newcomer, I have no choice in the matter. Bethany has been labeled intractable by everyone who has dealt with her so far, with the exception of Joy McConey, whose notes are not in the file—very possibly because she never wrote any. While I'm not exactly nervous about having Bethany Krall on my list, I am not enthusiastic either. My perspective on physical violence has shifted since my accident. I now want to avoid it at all costs, and have taken every possible measure to do so, with the exception of having my strangulation-length hair cut short, because I'm vain about it. But perhaps with Bethany Krall on my list I'll be visiting the hairdresser after all: according to the case notes, my new charge is something of an extremist in the aggression department.
After ten years of dealing with criminally psychotic minors I am used to stories like Bethany Krall's, but the reports of her mother's murder still manage to stir up a familiar, heart-sinking queasiness, a kind of moral ache. The full-color police photos are shocking enough to make me blink, redirect my gaze out the window, and wonder what sort of person decides to opt for a career in forensic pathology. Apart from the turbines in the distance, there isn't much to comfort the eye. The shimmering tarmac of the deserted basketball court, a line of industrial-sized garbage cans, and beyond the electrified perimeter fence a vista that twangs a country-and-western chord of self-pity in me. For a brief moment, when I first arrived, I thought of putting a photo of Alex—Laughing Alpha Male at Roulette Wheel—next to my computer, alongside my family collection: Late Mother Squinting into Sun on Pebbled Beach, Brother Pierre with Postpartum Wife and Male Twins, and Compos Mentis Father Fighting Daily Telegraph Crossword. But I stopped myself. Why give myself a daily reminder of what I have in every other way laid to rest? Besides, there would be curiosity from colleagues, and my responses to their questions would seem either morbid or tasteless or brutal depending on the pitch and roll of my mood. Memories of my past existence, and the future that came with it, can start as benign, Vaselined nostalgia vignettes. But they'll quickly ghost train into malevolent noir shorts backlit by that great worst enemy of all victims of circumstance, hindsight. So for the sake of my own sanity, I apologize silently to Alex before burying him in the desk alongside my emergency bottle of Laphroaig and a little homemade flower press given to me by a former patient who hanged himself with a clothesline.
The happy drawer.
Before taking the lift up to the room christened, with creepy institutional earnestness, the Creativity Workshop, I go through the rest of Bethany Krall's file, setting aside the more detailed notes of her drug regimen and physical checkups to glance at later.
The facts are stark enough. Two years ago, on April 5, during Easter school vacation, Bethany Krall stabbed her mother, Karen, to death with a screwdriver in a frenzied and unexplained attack. At fourteen, Bethany Krall was small and underweight for her age. Remarkable, then, that her mother's savaging should have been so ferocious and sustained: the child had drawn huge strength from somewhere. But there was no question she had committed the murder: the house was locked from the inside and her fingerprints were all over the weapon. Bethany's father, Leonard, an evangelical preacher, was away at a prophecy conference in Birmingham at the time, having left that morning. He had spoken to his wife and daughter separately just an hour before the tragedy and reported that Karen was concerned about Bethany's loss of appetite, while Bethany herself had complained of severe headaches. Karen Krall had put the call on speakerphone and they had all prayed together. This was a family tradition.
At ten thirty that evening a neighbor heard violent screaming and raised the alarm, but by the time the police arrived Karen Krall was dead. They found her daughter curled on the floor next to her in a fetal position. In this photograph, you don't see Bethany's face, but you see the part of her mother's that isn't blood covered. The screwdriver is rammed deep into her left eye, its yellow plastic handle protruding. It has an odd jauntiness, like a dinner fork stuck upright in a joint of meat cooked rare and abandoned midmeal. The pool of blood on the floor has developed the kind of skin that acrylic or emulsion paint will form. Another photograph, taken from above, shows an open trash can containing, according to the notes, "the charred remains of one King James Bible." A physical examination immediately after the tragedy showed recent bruising on Bethany's body, particularly the upper arms, and damage to both wrists. From this it was concluded that a severe physical struggle had taken place.