Laura found the place, made the call, and scheduled the pickup. The pickup. Like we were to leave Michelle in a bag at the end of our driveway. The woman on the phone told Laura she was doing the right thing. Laura told me we were doing the right thing. I’m still not sure.
I was on a flight to New York when they came for her. The agency had called some last-minute, urgent meeting—the only kind they ever call—so I had to be there. A few nights before, Michelle had come home drunk. Drunk is not the right word. Too cutesy, too much room for fun. Puking didn’t even faze her. She sat up, opened her mouth, and everything inside poured down her shirt. No convulsing. No sound. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was barely breathing, her skin the color of bone.
When we brought her home, she made jokes in the car and sipped orange Gatorade, the hospital bracelet sliding up close to her elbow.
Laura yelled at her. She yelled in the car, in the driveway, through the kitchen, up the stairs, and continued to yell after Michelle slammed and locked her door. When Laura came back down, she was sweaty, her face flushed like she’d just gone for a long run. But there wasn’t that gentleness, that peace in her eyes.
“How can you just sit there?” she wanted to know. “After what she did?”
I put my bowl of grapes on the coffee table. “We just got home. She’s alive; that’s the most important thing. Give her some time.”
Laura walked into the other room. I reached for a grape but thought better of it, and listened to her rustle through some papers until she came back in and handed me a business card with sharp corners. At the bottom, a small logo: two hands cupping a sapling.
Laura nodded. “Rebecca gave it to me at our last session. They take care of everything. Insurance’ll cover it. Some of it, anyway.”
My fingers curled around the card. “But what do they do?”
“They help, Don. They help parents who don’t know what the fuck to do. They help kids—” She tried again. “They help kids before it’s too late.”
Before it’s too late. I’d soon hear that phrase from social workers, counselors, every staff member at Hillock Academy. I’d read it in brochure after brochure, testimonials from other parents “just like us.” But hearing Laura say it for the first time was like watching an actress audition for a role she didn’t want.
The next day, Michelle came downstairs for breakfast.
“Hey,” I said. “Casper the hungover ghost.”
The plastic bottoms of her slippers shushed across the kitchen floor. She opened the cabinet.
“I think you can take that off now,” I said, pointing to her bracelet.
She smiled and twirled it. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a good look, don’t you think?”
I took a big spoonful of cereal and chewed. “Very classy. And you’ll never have to worry about forgetting your name.”
She laughed, reached for the box, and shook some into her bowl. With the tips of her fingers, she put the flakes, one by one, into her mouth.
“You’ve been eating cereal the same way since you were three years old,” I said.
“I was ahead of my time.”
It was her cockiness that disturbed Laura the most. Michelle had that teenage-invincibility thing, and we’d never convince her otherwise. How could we? Alcohol poisoning, a trip to the ER, and the next day she’s good as new. A little queasy, a little pale, but nothing some Gatorade and crappy TV couldn’t fix.
I’d think about that breakfast for years. Michelle’s pale skin, her raccoon eyes. Delicate as a porcelain ballerina with a crooked spine of Krazy Glue. How my fear mutated into stupid jokes. How I convinced myself that my silent love was a time-release drug that would slowly cure her. How I shouldn’t have let Laura make that call.
But like I said, I was 30,000 feet in the air when the van came. I got the story later. Alex, Michelle’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, thought it was a good idea to bring her and some of his buddies up to the water tower to “tweak” or “get ripped” or whatever scumbag, brain-dead way they put it these days. This was two days after she got home from the hospital. Laura thought she had her under house arrest, but Michelle is Superwoman. No window too small, no roof too high. Laura called the number on the card as soon as she realized Michelle was gone.
“I had to, Don,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
I pictured a blacked-out van with a sliding door. The kind that might park in an alleyway against the brick wall of a jewelry store while two bumbling cat burglars slide open the door and drill a hole through the wall. They crawl inside, yank trays of precious stones from display cases, dump them into drawstring canvas bags, and then disappear into the night.
By the time I landed in New York, Michelle was already on her way to Hillock Academy. She called me the next morning sobbing, her voice crackling through the phone.
“Two fucking meatheads in polo shirts kidnap you at three in the morning. How would you feel, Dad?”
A few days later, after Laura went to bed, I sat on the couch and reread the Hillock brochure. Glossy photos of an expansive green lawn stretching up to a seaside mansion. A low-angle shot from the beach: large, jagged rocks fortifying the foundation, wide bay windows reflecting the ocean. Photos of teenagers with their arms around each other, smiling, their clothes seemingly brand new like models from a catalogue. Which one of these kids looks the happiest? the ad team might’ve wondered. Which one looks the least sick?
And the tone, my god. That tone they use in these brochures—the same kind our copy team pumps out day after day. Sentences tailored to your weaknesses, your vulnerabilities. Hillock Academy features “clinically-intensive, evidence-based therapies” and “family support” and the “full continuum of care, from crisis intervention to aftercare planning.” They provide a “safe environment” for teens. The brochure whispers like a mass card. Let go and let Hillock.
I finished my drink, laid down on the couch, and stared at our Christmas tree. Something about those little white lights, how they twinkled through the red and green ornaments like liquor bottles. My mother’s glass angel balanced on top. Tell you the truth, I don’t know how we pulled it together that year, but it was up, it was decorated, and that had to count for something.
Laura packed a cooler bag with plastic containers: homemade chicken noodle soup, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a tin of Christmas cookies. I walked back and forth between the car and the house. The first couple of trips were on purpose, but then I forgot my sunglasses, and then I forgot my cell phone. Without fail, I always end up in this ritual, this pacing between house and car. I don’t even fight it anymore. This is just the way I leave the house. It’s almost like when a dog walks in circles on the couch before settling in to sleep. I heard they do that because when they were wild, they stamped down the ground and flattened out a spot for their bed. Maybe my pacing is some displaced instinct, something that served my ancestors but is useless to me now.
“Do you think she needs more blankets? Or an extra pillow or something?” Laura asked.
I went back inside and up to Michelle’s room. I stood in the hallway for a moment, my hand on the doorknob. How many times had I stood in that exact position, waiting, listening? Listening for the crack of a beer, the burbling of a bong, or worse—heavy breathing. Now nothing. The door creaked open. This wasn’t Michelle’s bedroom anymore. It was a time capsule. A museum exhibit. Teenage Bedroom, circa 2017. Laura had already cleaned it since the pickup, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the wood floor, or the bed made. Everything was dusted and polished: the tin tray of candles on her dresser, the small ceramic vases stuffed with drawing pencils on her desk, her bookshelves—mostly poetry and screenplays of her favorite movies. Lording over this obscenely clean room were her band posters: a pale, dark-eyed woman, half naked, reaching out; and serious tough guys in black knit hats and tank tops, tattoos curling up their chests and necks. I opened her closet, pulled down a spare blanket and with it came her middle school backpack, the dark-blue monogrammed JanSport. The white “M” was filled in with black ink. It looked deflated. I only ever saw it filled to capacity and strapped to her little body. Here, it seemed out of place, like a sneaker on the side of a highway. I hung it on the doorknob, shut the closet, and went back downstairs.
Whenever I see those movies or TV shows where a character steps into a parallel dimension and discovers an alternate version of himself, I think of parents’ weekend at Hillock. On the surface, everything was fine. The lawn and hedges trimmed with military precision, the hallways sparkling, the coffee dispensers gleaming. “Welcome” tote bags with HILLOCK stamped on the front filled with two HILLOCK T-shirts, two HILLOCK water bottles, and a couple of HILLOCK pens and pads—not unlike the swag my team and I distribute to doctors’ offices. Laura and I were both dressed up, though I wasn’t sure why. Some of the other parents were too. Others wore baggy sweatshirts and jeans, or T-shirts and baseball hats. Those other men surveyed the building, and took note of the furniture and light fixtures. Those other men ran estimates in their head, their brain tissue like stacks of carbon paper, and the number they arrived at was the exact amount Hillock was going to drain from their paychecks every week. Those other men thought of driving a fist through the drywall and imagined a beam of light shining back, a peephole into the shadow world; the one we all wanted to be true, the one where we were gathered in the marble lobby of a prestigious college rather than the cavernous vestibule of a glorified halfway house.
In a glass case was some kind of wall of fame. Patients who had gone on to do great things. Except they didn’t call them “patients,” they called them “guests.” Like Michelle was invited, rather than thrown into a van and forced there. Were all the kids stolen in the middle of the night? Or did some of them have parents with enough guts to drive them there? So many of them looked oddly similar, like a portrait gallery of the Kennedys: neat brown hair, square jaws, triumphant gray-green eyes. They went on to start companies, travel the world, and raise families. Each bio offered an italicized testimonial with their parting words:
I thought my life was over when I first came to Hillock. Turns out, it was the opposite.
Hillock taught me how to have empathy, especially for myself.
Hillock is my second home.
The last one disturbed me the most. Your second home? What did Shaun Donohue mean by that? That he loved his time here so much it was equal to the home he was raised in? Or was his first home so miserable that Hillock didn’t have much competition?
“Don?” Laura said. “Don. The tour’s starting.”
She grabbed my hand and led me back to the group. We reeked of coffee and sweat. All of us had a long drive. Nobody lived near Hillock.
At the front of the group was a tall, severely thin woman with a sharp nose and sharp cheekbones. She looked carved from stone.
“Good morning, parents,” she said. “I am Mary Dalton, chief executive officer of Hillock Academy. On behalf of our staff and guests, welcome.”
“I always like to begin by saying you made the right decision. A decision no parent wants to make, of course. To be frank, I wish we lived in a world where Hillock was obsolete. Unnecessary. Until then, we’re here to help you and your child rebuild.”
Laura leaned forward with her chin up like a houseplant basking in a slice of sunlight. My disgust surprised me. I felt the way I did on road trips decades ago when she slyly asked if I wanted McDonald’s, knowing I’d give in as long as she asked first. And how I judged her even as I took my own greedy bites of a delicious, poisonous burger.
Mary Dalton led us down gleaming hallway after gleaming hallway: closed doors with gold plaques, a few associate directors, and nearly a dozen case workers. At the end of one hallway, a floor-to-ceiling, stained-glass window. A line of children holding hands and following a tall woman. Rays of sunlight beaming down on them. I got a closer look at the children’s faces as we walked by. They weren’t smiling, but they also weren’t unhappy. Masks of serenity.
Down one of those hallways, behind one of those doors, was Michelle. Maybe lying on a thin mattress on a bed frame of scuffed wood. Maybe a matching desk, a marble notebook. Were they allowed to have pens? Were the rooms the same as the ones in the brochure? Or did they use a stage—a fake room much nicer and cleaner than the real dorms?
At the agency, we talk a lot about “perception.” How consumers perceive us, how we perceive consumers. What I’ve learned over the past two decades is that the truth doesn’t matter. It’s what we believe to be true that’s important. You’re a health-conscious person and you’re shopping for honey. One jar has a generic label, another is in a little burlap sack with a handwritten tag: “Local.” Chances are you’ll pay an extra few bucks for the local brand—even though it might not be any healthier or even closer to home than the generic. But that doesn’t matter. You believe that it’s better, so it’s better. When you taste it, you feel better about yourself and feeling better about yourself makes the honey taste sweeter, purer. So I chose to believe that the room in the brochure was the room that Michelle was in.
Mary Dalton walked and talked while gesturing at the walls and ceiling, and pointing to the green lawn and snow-dusted pine trees in the distance. “Hillock offers around-the-clock support to over fifty guests in a state-of-the-art facility,” she said, and we followed her like elementary school students. Single file. Inside voices.
We didn’t sit down until lunch. A massive cafeteria. Each set of parents sat at a different table. Along the side, a row of stainless-steel, dome-topped serving trays. Something safe was inside: roasted potatoes and grilled chicken, maybe, or penne Bolognese. Servers stood behind the table; shiny spoons cocked in white-gloved hands.
“I’m too nervous to eat,” Laura said.
I nodded and looked at the next table. One of the baseball hat dads was chowing down. Hunched over, shoveling, like a starved inmate. Who was I to judge? Maybe this wasn’t his first rodeo. Maybe for some, having your kid taken away in the middle of the night and driven two states away was common. There must be—what would we call them?—repeat offenders. No, “frequent guests.”
Somewhere above, a soft chime sounded, the doors opened, and Michelle walked in. Her Hello Kitty pajamas hung loosely around her waist, her upper half somewhere beneath an extra-large HILLOCK sweatshirt. Other kids flowed around her. I thought of kennels, of abandoned dogs lined up for viewing. She met our eyes. I decided the shape of her mouth was a smile.
“Hey, sweetie,” I whispered, pulling her close.
“How are you, honey?” Laura asked.
Michelle looked confused. We stood for a moment, then sat down.
“Are you getting enough to eat?” Laura reached into the cooler bag.
“Please, Mom,” Michelle said. “No food.”
Laura clasped her hands in front of her.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
Michelle shrugged. Some other families spoke in hushed voices. Some were silent. The servers waited.
“Do you get outside much?” Laura asked. “It’s a beautiful property.”
“Then why don’t you live here, ma?” Michelle laughed. “If it’s so beautiful.”
We sat in silence for who knows how long. Too long.
Some of the families got food and returned to their tables. Michelle looked around in the cooler bag. She pulled out the tin of Christmas cookies and stared at it for a few seconds. There was a hollow ping when she dropped it back into the bag. She took an apple instead.
“So,” I said. “What are your days like? Are there activities or meetings? Classes or something?”
“Yeah,” Michelle said. “So many meetings. Everyone in here is a total fuck up.”
“You’re not,” Laura said.
“I didn’t say I was. I said everyone else.”
Laura sighed and looked at me. I held her stare for a moment, then turned away. Michelle took a slow, quiet bite of her apple.
It occurred to me: Taxicol. A new drug the agency was marketing. The one I’d been called in to New York to discuss the day the van took Michelle away. The commercial my boss said would bag us a Clio Health Award. A black-and-white clip of an angsty teenage girl slumped beside her untouched breakfast. A hand squeezes her shoulder, and the narrator describes the symptoms of depression and anxiety. And although we never see the girl taking Taxicol, we know from the way the colors brighten, the way she walks out the door smiling, the montage of bike rides and pizza parties and study sessions, that the drug is working. Then we see the girl as a young woman backing out of the driveway in her beat-up car filled with cardboard boxes and the parents standing on the stoop, the father’s arm around the mother. They share a look that screams “WE DID THE RIGHT THING,” and this is almost enough—almost—to ignore the narrator’s quiet avalanche of side effects.
I wanted to stand up in the middle of this fake lunch, in this polished room that smelled vaguely of bleach. I wanted to scoop up Michelle and get her out of there, and if Laura wanted to come too, fine, but if not, we were leaving anyway. I’d quit my job and become an organic farmer or a carpenter. Maybe both. Build a new house on the edge of some woods. Michelle, freshly showered, her long, wet hair hanging down to the middle of her back, would stand poised in the field like a wild horse, lingering long enough for me to appreciate her strength before charging off into the trees.
Michelle laughed, as if she could hear my thoughts.
“Where were you, Dad? Mom had me fuckin’ kidnapped. Where were you?”
On the ride home, we stopped at a gas station. Laura was hungry. She came back with a hot dog in a little paper coffin and a box of cherry cough drops.
“Remember these?” she asked, shaking the box.
“Oh, wow,” I said. “I haven’t seen those since I was a kid. We used to eat them like candy.”
We pulled out of the gas station onto Route 2. The dark road ran straight for miles. Every other house or so shined like a miniature Las Vegas with red and green Christmas lights lining the gutters and windows, and wrapped around bushes and trees. One house turned the garage into Santa’s workshop, complete with an assembly line of animatronic elves stiffly hammering wooden wagons and slack-jawed puppets. Then there was the latest trend that depressed the shit out of me, something Michelle and I made fun of any time we saw it: those lazy blow-up decorations. Big, bloated Santa Clauses and roly-poly Rudolphs, their electrical pumps whirring all night long.
There were dark houses, too. Ones that stood stark and silent. No lights. No blow-up Santa. Nothing glowing inside.
I wanted to ask Laura if she thought Michelle would be home for Christmas. I wanted to ask, but I knew the answer. I just wanted her to say it, so when I had to think about it night after night after night, the words would be in her voice, not mine. Our bodies pulsed against each other like opposite poles of a magnet.
Laura shook out two cough drops and offered me one. She put hers in her mouth and turned away. I crunched mine between my teeth, the red shards melting beneath my tongue. I could already feel it working.