How do you choose between your family and your history?
Emotional and compelling storytelling from Sara Shepard, author of All the Things We Didn’t Say.
A late-night phone call on a Sunday evening rarely brings good news. So when Sylvie, a recently-widowed mother of two, receives a call from the head teacher of the school she’s on the board of, she knows it won’t be something she wants to hear. The school was founded by her grandfather, and she’s inherited everything he strived to build up – a reputation, a heritage, the school and the grand old family house. And with this inheritance comes responsibility.
So when her son Scott is whispered to be involved in a scandal that led to the death of one of the boys he coaches at the school, it throws the family into chaos: Sylvie has to decide between her loyalty to the school that has been part of her family legacy for years and her son who she feels wants nothing to do with her. She starts spying on the dead boy’s father, making an unlikely connection.
Sara Shepard’s compelling new novel tells how hard it can be to really, truly connect to people, how making quick, easy judgments can come back to haunt you, and how the life you always planned for – and always dreamed of – often doesn’t always turn out the way you imagined at all…
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An Excerpt from Everything We Ever Wanted
The man introduced himself on the phone as Michael Tayson, the new Swithin headmaster. “We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet,” he said.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Sylvie said quickly, sitting up straighter. It was almost 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. A strangely intimate time, she thought, for a chat. “What can I do for you?”
“We have a bit of a situation,” Michael Tayson said.
For a moment, Sylvie wondered if she’d fallen through a pocket in time. Her sons, Charles and Scott, were still teenagers. They were upstairs in their rooms, doing their homework—or, in Scott’s case, not doing his homework—and it was Jerome Cunningham, the old headmaster, on the phone instead. He hadn’t retired yet, the boys hadn’t graduated yet, and James … well, James was still here, too, upstairs behind his closed office door. He could walk downstairs and she could still talk to him.
“One of our students passed away this morning,” Michael Tayson went on, bringing her back to the present. “We’re not sure how, but there are suspicions it might have been a suicide. His name was Christian Givens, a freshman. One of the scholarship boys.”
Sylvie murmured how terrible that was, how sorry she felt for the family. All her years on the board, they’d had a few deaths—some car accidents, a case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma—but never a suicide, thank God. Was he looking for suggestions about memorial services?
The church clock down at the end of Sylvie’s drive bonged out the hour. “He was a wrestler,” Michael finally said. “Your son coached him.”
“Oh,” Sylvie whispered.
“This is a delicate situation, obviously. We know how much you and your family … we know what you’ve done for us. But there might be questions. We’ll try as best we can to keep things out of the spotlight, but you have to understand that it might not be possible.” He took a deep breath. “Scott’s job is all right for now. The season’s finished. Next season, we’ll have to see. This might blow over.”
Sylvie stood up. “I’m sorry, what does this have to do with Scott?”
She heard a chair creaking and imagined that the man on the other end, a man she hadn’t yet met, was leaning back. Sylvie had been in the office the school reserved for the headmaster plenty of times, especially when Scott was a student. Jerome had never suspended Scott for anything, even though Sylvie assured him that he should treat Scott the same as any other student. She knew why he let Scott’s transgressions slide.
“There’s a rumor going around,” Michael Tayson said. “Apparently, there’s a lot of pressure among the wrestlers. Some of the boys couldn’t handle it.”
“The weight-loss pressure,” Sylvie ventured, “to make their weight class. But doesn’t that happen on all wrestling teams?”
“This wasn’t the typical weight-loss stuff, no.”
He coughed weakly. “I’m not saying it’s true. I’ll say that up front. But I’ve heard that if a boy doesn’t perform well in the match, the boys … I’m not sure exactly what they do. There are beatings. Sometimes brutal, though you know boys—they hide these things if they can. No one wants to be the snitch; no one wants to look pathetic. There’s humiliation as well. I’ve heard … well, I’ve heard all kinds of things. It’s hard to say who’s doing it. It may be just a few boys, but we suspect the others stand around and, well, watch. It’s definitely bullying. Some may even call it hazing.”
Sylvie felt dizzy. “Hazing,” she repeated slowly.
“I also heard that Christian was one of the boys who … didn’t perform well,” the headmaster said. “I doubt you would remember him from the matches—he was awfully small, didn’t get to compete much. Kept to himself. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for the wrestling team, but as you know, we encourage our boys to participate in sports …”
Outside, the porch light made the wet tree branches glitter. “How many people know about this?” She thought of this getting out, the community talking—people outside the Swithin family. Some would grab onto a story like this and hold tight. The school’s reputation suddenly felt delicate and precarious.
“We’ve tried to keep it quiet,” he answered. “Bullying is such a sensitive topic right now …”
Suddenly, Sylvie scoffed. “Who told you this crazy idea?” It couldn’t be true. Not at Swithin.
“I … I can’t say.”
There was a tingling sensation in her stomach. “And are you implying Scott encouraged these boys to … ?” She trailed off, touching the mantelpiece.
“Of course not,” Michael said. “That’s not—”
“What about the head coach? Mr. Fontaine? What does he have to say?”
“He’s in England, visiting his mother. He left after the season ended. We’re trying to reach him.”
“And how many boys on the team have corroborated this story?”
“I didn’t hear it from any of them, Mrs. Bates-McAllister.”
“Well, there you go.” Sylvie’s heart was beating fast. “Someone made this up. You know how teenagers get with rumors. You know how they embellish things. Something is whispered to one person and by lunch it’s a huge scandal.”
There was a long pause. “I’m not suggesting I believe it,” the headmaster said. “I’m just explaining what I’ve heard. We take everything seriously, as you know. For now, I’m arranging for a few people to meet with Scott. It will be an independent council of teachers, none of your colleagues on the board. I don’t want this to get out of hand, either for us or for you. Your family has done so much for the school, after all. And I know there have been some attempts at … how shall I put this? Some attempts at character assassination, I suppose, regarding certain members of your family in the past. I assure you that I intend to be discreet.”
Sylvie ground her nails into the fabric of the sofa. Character assassination. Discreet. He had a way of making the words sound so dirty. “This is unprofessional.” She paced around the room. “You can’t call a coach in to talk to them about a ridiculous rumor. And you shouldn’t come to me with something like this unless you know.”
“Calling Scott in to talk seems fair. If there was a rumor going around about someone else on the staff, another teacher, another coach, you would want us to feel that person out about it, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Bates-McAllister?”
When Sylvie pressed her hand to her forehead, she felt a muscle in her temple throb, a tiny flutter under her skin. She glanced out the window in the kitchen; Scott’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She dared to think of what he was doing: lifting weights at the gym, playing video games, driving the Mercedes too fast, whipping around the turns and grinding the gears. She thought of the jobs he’d held: the stint as an auto mechanic, mostly learning the ropes so he could soup up his own car, which he’d since crashed. Pouring concrete, coming home covered in gray film. Even that time he caddied at James’s golf club, though that had lasted only a day; he’d said the golfers were racist, giving him accusing looks as if he was going to walk off with their clubs. She’d felt urgently optimistic with each job he took, praying that this one would be his true path, the thing that set him straight. He quit each job after only a matter of weeks.
Something else appeared in her mind, too. When Scott was ten or eleven, she had come upon him in the basement. He was crouched in the corner, watching something. A mouse was trapped under a large glass vase, slowly suffocating. It clawed the sides of the vase, its little paws scrambling. How had it gotten there? It took her a few moments to understand. “Scott!” she’d cried out, but her voice was so weak, so ineffectual. Always so ineffectual. When he didn’t do anything, she’d pushed him aside, lifted the vase, and let the mouse go. Scott had looked at her like she was crazy. She complained about mice in the basement all the time—didn’t she want them dead? But it was Scott’s expression, as he’d watched the mouse flail under the dome that had made her set it free. The look on his face was one of iron-cold indifference, as if he’d almost enjoyed the poor creature’s suffering.