MY FIRST NIGHT at Latham House, I lay awake in my narrow, gabled room in Cottage 6 wondering how many people had died in it. And I didn’t just wonder this casually, either. I did the math. I figured the probability. And I came up with a number: eight. But then, I’ve always been terrible at math.
In fourth grade, we had to do timed tests for our multiplication tables. Five minutes a page, fifty questions each, and if you wanted to move on, you couldn’t make a single mistake. The teacher charted our progress on a piece of hot-pink poster board taped up for everyone to see, a smiley face sticker next to our name for each table we completed. I watched as the number of stickers next to everyone else’s names grew, while I got stuck on the sevens. I did the flash cards every night, but it was no use, because it wasn’t the multiplication table that was giving me trouble. It was the pressure of being told two things: 1. That I only had a short amount of time, and 2. That I had to get everything right.
When I finally drifted off to sleep, I dreamed of houses falling into the ocean and drowning. The water swallowed them, but they rose up again from the black depths, rotting and covered in seaweed as they rode the waves back to shore, looking for their owners.
I’M AN ONLY child, so the prospect of using the communal bathroom was pretty horrifying. Which is why I set my alarm that first morning for six o’clock, tiptoeing down the hall with my Dopp kit and towel while everyone else was still asleep.
It was strange wearing shoes in the shower, being completely naked except for a pair of flip-flops. Washing my hair with shoes on, and doing it in a Tupperware container of a shower stall, felt so different from my normal Monday morning routine that I wondered if I’d ever get used to it.
I used to sleep in at home, waiting until the last possible moment to roll out of bed, grope for a clean shirt, and eat a cereal bar on the drive to school. I’d listen to whatever songs were on the radio, not because I liked them, but because they were my tarot cards. If the songs were good, it would be a good day. If they were bad, I’d probably get a B on a quiz.
But that morning, standing at the window of my dorm room as I buttoned my shirt, I felt like an entirely different person. It was as though someone had taken an eraser to my life and, instead of getting rid of the mess, had rubbed away all the parts that I’d wanted to keep.
Now, instead of my girlfriend, and my dog, and my car, I had a pale-green vinyl mattress, a view of the woods, and an ache in my chest.
I’d gotten in late the night before. My parents drove me up, Dad clutching the steering wheel and Mom staring straight ahead as we listened to NPR for six hours with the windows down, not saying anything. Dinner was long over and it was almost lights-out by the time I’d opened my suitcase.
Latham still didn’t feel real. Not yet. I’d encountered it, tiptoeing around the corridors out of sync with the rest of its residents, but I hadn’t yet become one of them.
It was the end of September, and I was seventeen, and my senior year was taking place four hundred miles away, without me. I tried not to think about that as I waited for my tour guide outside the dormitory, in the early-morning chill of the mountains. I tried not to think about any of it, because I was pretty sure the full weight of my situation would crush me. Instead, I thought about wet flip-flops and math problems and my cell phone, which I’d had for a few brief hours in the car, and which had been taken from me upon arrival.
According to my information packet, Your First-Day Ambassador, Grant Harden, will meet you outside your dorm at 7:55 a.m. to take you to breakfast and help you find your first class.
So I waited for Grant to show up while everyone else streamed past me, shuffling toward the dining hall in a motley assortment of sweatpants and pajamas, like we were at summer camp.
Of course Grant was running late, so I stood there forever, getting more and more annoyed. It seemed ridiculous that I couldn’t just find my own way to breakfast, or to Latham’s one academic building, that I needed to be publicly escorted.
I glanced at my wrist: 8:09. I didn’t know how much longer I was reasonably expected to stand there, so I waited another few minutes, then gave up and walked to the dining hall.
It was easy enough to find the place, to pick up a tray and join the line of half-asleep teenagers. I was right; I hadn’t needed some kid to show me around after all. It was just a cafeteria line. I took a bowl of cereal and a little milk carton, noting that my old high school had carried the same brand of milk, featuring this weird, grinning cow’s head. How strange, for everything to shift so drastically, but for the milk cartons to stay the same.
I slid my tray along the counter, past the plates of eggs and muffins and toast. But it wasn’t until I heard someone yell for a friend to save him a seat that I realized my mistake: I was totally alone. I’d been so impatient to get to the dining hall that I hadn’t thought it through. Maybe, if I’d gone into the bathroom that morning along with everyone else, pitching myself into the chaos instead of avoiding it, I could have found someone to walk over with. Now, I didn’t even know who lived on my floor. And I was fast approaching the front of the line, without even a cell phone to rescue me from the total disaster of having nowhere to sit in a crowded dining hall.
I was thinking that I couldn’t have screwed this up worse when the nutritionist frowned down at my tray like I’d personally disappointed her with my choice of breakfast cereal.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“I’m not really hungry.” I never was in the mornings; my appetite usually slept in until noon.
“I can’t sign off on this,” she said, as though I should have known better. “If you’re too unwell to eat a full meal, you talk to the hall nurse before breakfast.”
Too unwell. God, how embarrassing.
“It’s my first day,” I said desperately. “I didn’t know.”
I glanced behind me, uncomfortably aware that I was holding up the line. Way to make an impression. I hadn’t known it was possible to fail breakfast.
Actually, I should have known. Grant should have told me.
“You can go back through for some protein. Or you can take a strike.”
She glared at me, all pursed lips and leathery-tanned skin, waiting.
The thought of slinking to the back of the line, with everyone watching, filled me with a sense of horror. She couldn’t mean it. But apparently, she did.
“Well?” the nutritionist asked.
I wished I were the sort of guy who’d take a strike, whatever that meant, just to prove that I didn’t have to play by the system. But I wasn’t. At least, not yet. I was a head-down-and-grades-up sort of guy. When the warning bell rang, I hustled. When Scantron tests were given, I brought a spare No. 2 pencil. And so, with everyone watching, I took a deep breath and went to the back of the line.
THAT WAS BRUTAL,” the boy in front of me said. He was my age, a pudgy Indian kid with a pair of old-fashioned glasses and a mess of black hair. Even at eight a.m., he was all nervous energy. “Not many people can say they’ve flunked breakfast on their first day.”
“I didn’t do the homework,” I said. “I had too much on my plate.”
He grinned, picking up on the pun.
“Or apparently, not enough,” he said. “I’m Nikhil. Everyone calls me Nick.”
“So, Lane,” he said. “Here’s a crash course on meals: You take a dish from each station. You don’t have to eat it all. Hell, you could sculpt the Colosseum out of eggs and toast, but you take full plates and bring back empty ones.”
“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a nutritionist?” I asked.
“Precisely. Which is where the plan comes in.”
“We have a plan?”
“We do indeed. Because lovely old Linda up there told you to go back for more, but she didn’t tell you how much more.”
I saw where he was going with this immediately.
“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not really—”
“You’re looking pretty hungry there, Lane.” Nick grinned hugely as he slung a plate of scrambled eggs onto my tray. Before I could protest, he’d topped the scrambled eggs with hard-boiled ones.
I looked down at my tray. The damage was done. I’d been egged. And so, with Nick egging me on, I added a stack of toast.
“Perfect,” he said. “Now how about a muffin?”
He reached into the case and held up an entire platter, offering it to me with a flourish.
“How about two?” I said.
We were halfway to the front when the line stopped moving again.
“You can’t be serious,” the nutritionist said.
Everyone craned forward to see what was going on. It was a girl. She was small and blond, with a messy ponytail. On her tray was a single mug of tea.
“So give me a strike,” the girl said. It sounded like a challenge.
“Go back through.”
“You and I both know there isn’t enough time for that,” the girl said.
It was true. There were maybe twenty minutes before we had to head to class.
“My tea’s getting cold, so if you don’t mind?” said the girl.
She held out her wrist with the black silicone bracelet, daring the nutritionist to scan it. The dining hall was silent. We were all watching to see what Linda would do.
And then she scanned the girl through, typing furiously into the computer bank.
“Strike two this month, Sadie,” she warned.
“Ooh. After my third strike, do I get out?” the girl asked, laughing.
She exited the line in triumph, the mug of tea in front of her like a trophy. As she walked toward the tables, I saw her full-on for the first time. She was a miraculous, early morning kind of pretty, with a ponytail she’d probably slept in and a sweater slipping off one shoulder. Her lips were painted red, and her mouth quirked up at the corner, and she looked like the last girl you’d expect to start trouble in the cafeteria on a Monday morning.
But that wasn’t why I was staring. There was something oddly familiar about her. I had the unshakable impression that I’d seen her somewhere before, that we’d already met. And then I realized we had. At Camp Griffith, four years ago. That awful place in Los Padres my parents had shipped me off to when I was younger, so they could go on vacation without me.
“Well, that’s the other way to handle it,” Nick said, interrupting my train of thought.
Belatedly, I realized he was talking about Sadie.
“Won’t she get in trouble?” I asked.
“Of course.” Nick snorted. “But Sadie only gets in trouble when she wants to.”
I didn’t know what he meant, and I was about to ask, but we’d reached the front of the line.
“Hey there, Linda. Made you a Picasso this morning.” Nick smirked, presenting the nutritionist with his tray, upon which he’d arranged his tofu sausage, eggs, and English muffin into the unmistakable shape of a penis.
I was scanned through with equal disgust, and was about to follow Nick over to his group of friends, when he gave me a chin nod and said, “You probably want to catch up with your tour guide and kick his ass for not warning you about the food stations, huh?”
“Something like that,” I mumbled.
“Well, I’ll see you around.”
Before I could answer, he was gone.
I stood there alone, trying not to despair as my unwanted breakfast slid around on my tray. It was too dark inside the dining hall, the paneled wood and brass chandeliers swallowing all sense of time. The tables were small, round things. Six seats each, like some disastrous King Arthur’s court. I thought longingly of Harbor High, with its palm trees and plastic-wrapped sandwiches, where my group and I hung out in the little courtyard behind the science labs.
We were the marginally acceptable AP crowd. Liked enough to hold officer positions in the Model United Nations Club, but not on the radar for something like student council. Most days, my girlfriend and I would check homework answers, or study for next period, and we’d pass a can of Coke back and forth while we ate our sandwiches. It wasn’t the kind of group where we hung out at each other’s houses, but I’d never once doubted that I had a place to sit.
I watched as Nick joined Sadie’s table, striking a pose with his breakfast art that made everyone laugh. I understood then that he hadn’t made the plate of, uh, junk food to piss off the nutritionist. He’d made it to amuse his friends. There were still two seats left, but Nick hadn’t invited me to join him, and anyway, they probably belonged to people who were still in line.
I hoped that my missing tour guide would see me standing there and wave me over to his table with a sheepish apology, but no such luck. The 2.5 breakfasts on my tray were starting to get heavy, and I had to put the thing down somewhere. So I took a deep breath and walked to the back of the dining hall like I knew where I was going.
I SAT DOWN randomly, at a table with four empty seats and two boys intensely playing a game of travel chess, who seemed to be off in their own world. I sighed and poured my milk into my cereal, dumping in the whole carton instead of trying to get the proportions right. The Cheerios floated to the top, bobbing like empty life rafts.
“Hi, I’m Genevieve. Are you new?” a girl asked, taking the seat next to mine. Her smile was friendly, but there was something about the combination of freckles and ponytail and teeth that made me certain she had a dozen horse-riding ribbons pinned over her desk.
“First day,” I said.
“You’ll love it here,” she promised. “What’s your dorm?”
“Um, six?” I said.
“John’s in six!” she said, as though this was the biggest coincidence in the world. “He’s my boyfriend. He’ll be here in a minute; the line’s taking forever today.”
I was at the wrong table. I knew it then, as the girl introduced me to John, her acne-ravaged boyfriend, and to Tim and Chris, the two chess players I’d mistakenly assumed were sitting by themselves, not waiting for the rest of their group.
“Are you really going to eat all that?” John asked, staring at my tray.
“It’s a joke,” I explained, halfheartedly. “The nutritionist said—”
“Oh, you don’t want to make her mad,” Genevieve warned. “She’ll give you a strike against privileges, and if you get three in a month, you’re banned from the social.”
“The social?” I asked.
“Didn’t your tour guide tell you anything?” Genevieve asked.
“Not really,” I said, not wanting to get into it.
“Oh. Well, we get some big activity every month,” Genevieve explained.
“I think this time it’s line dancing,” John put in, sounding scarily excited.
I snorted. No wonder Sadie had baited the nutritionist. I’d assumed it was detention, or chores, or whatever else bad kids are punished with, not a free pass from making a fool of yourself to “Cotton-Eye Joe.” But then, Nick had said she only got in trouble when she wanted to.
Genevieve launched enthusiastically into a description of line dancing, just in case I wasn’t already aware how much I would rather go to the dentist. I smiled and nodded, wishing I could have breakfast in peace. But I was the one who’d sat at their table, and they were just being nice.
And as awful as they were, it looked like I could have picked tables far worse. The group to my left was totally checked out, and I couldn’t tell if they were just early-morning zombies, or if the glazed expression was permanent. And on my right was a table of girls who were actively Not Talking to Each Other as they glared at their scrambled eggs.
I glanced across the dining hall, toward Nick and Sadie’s table. There was something magnetic about it, about them, even from all the way where I sat, in the outer rings. I couldn’t figure out what they were—not that your typical social groups applied at a place like Latham. There were four of them, and they were laughing. Nick had picked up his breakfast sausage and was holding it aloft like an orchestra conductor, waving it slowly and deliberately.
Next to me, Genevieve started coughing. She scrambled for a napkin, pressing it over her mouth.
“Sorry,” she said. “The orange juice had pulp.”
“You okay, bunny-wunny?” John asked, rubbing her back.
God, I really had picked a winner of a table. But something about Genevieve’s choking made me realize that, beyond the talking and the eating and the scraping of chairs, the dining hall echoed with coughing. It was like a symphony of sickness.
I glanced over at Sadie’s table again, and sure enough, that’s what they were laughing at. Nick, with his tofu sausage, was conducting the coughing.
THANKFULLY, ALL THE classrooms were in the same building, so I found my way to English without too much trouble. It was in a large, wood-paneled room with huge open windows, like an atrium. There was an old-fashioned chalkboard and twenty desks.
Twenty. I was used to SMART Boards. Lockers. Public school. And something told me that Mr. Holder, a balding crane of a man in a shapeless tweed blazer, had never been near a public school in his life.
“Yes?” he asked as I hesitated in the doorway, wondering if seating was assigned.
“I’m Lane Rosen,” I said. “I’m new?”
“Welcome to the rotation,” he said grimly. “Take the seat next to Mr. Carrow.”
He pointed toward a sullen-looking boy in the first row. I sat, taking out my notebook and pencil. Holder slapped a copy of Great Expectations and a photocopied packet on my desk.
“Read a chapter, answer the questions. Rinse and repeat. When you’re done, I’ll give you an essay topic,” he said, leaving me to it.
I stared down at the paperback on my desk. All around me, students were working. Some of them had different books. I spotted Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, and The Sun Also Rises. I sighed and opened my packet, skimming the questions so I knew what answers to look for when I started reading, a trick I’d picked up in SAT prep.
When class was over, Holder said, “See you on Wednesday,” and everyone started to pack up. I was about halfway through the questions for chapter two.
“Wait,” I said to the boy next to me. “What’s the homework?”
“Good one.” He snorted, as though I’d said something funny.
In history, we watched a documentary on the black plague and filled in a worksheet during the movie. The teacher didn’t even stay in the room. When she left, I expected the class to erupt into chaos, but everyone continued watching, except for a couple of kids who put their heads down on their desks and went to sleep.
I sat at the same table for lunch, which I hadn’t meant to do, except Genevieve was two places behind me in line, so there really wasn’t an exit tactic. I’d hoped my missing tour guide would have found me by now, but no such luck. I could feel the monotony setting in, and I wished it wouldn’t.
I didn’t want to be at Latham. I didn’t want this routine of having my meals checked and my teachers write me off at first glance. I wanted to be in third-period AP Euro, in Mr. Verma’s classroom with all the old newspapers framed on the walls, where we got pizza the Friday before an exam.
Back at Harbor, being in AP was like belonging to the club that teachers liked best. We were going somewhere in life, the teachers said, handing us extra-credit assignments instead of detention, study guides instead of busywork. I’d just never thought that where I was going was Latham House.
WE TOOK A long break after lunch. As I trudged across the quad, toward the cottages, I saw four students cut out toward the woods. Nick and Sadie’s crowd. They walked quickly, heads down, as though hurrying toward something far more interesting than rest period. And even though they did it in plain sight, no one seemed to care.
The eight cottages were arranged in a half-moon, around a gazebo in desperate need of a paint job. They were more like ski lodges than actual cottages, with dark wood and deep porches and neat rows of windows.
Each cottage had around twenty residents, if I had to guess. The first floor was a lounge area with dilapidated plaid sofas, a long study table, and stacks of board games. There was a separate television room, and a microkitchen, even though we weren’t supposed to cook anything.
The best places in the lounge had already been staked out by early arrivers. I watched as a group of four Asian kids played a loud game of Settlers of Catan on the rug, and two boys with a deck of Magic cards hunched over the coffee table.
My new and hopefully temporary acquaintances from earlier were setting up a game of Chinese checkers, and they cheerfully waved me over.
“We can play teams,” John suggested.
“I should finish unpacking,” I said, edging toward the door.
“Well, later then,” Tim called. Or maybe it was Chris. I didn’t want to stick around long enough to figure it out.
As I made my way back to my room, muffled music and the unmistakable sound effects of video games leaked from behind closed doors. It was reassuring to hear the Smiths and someone’s Pokémon battle, for some small part of my day to be normal.
I reached into my pocket, forgetting for a moment that it was empty. I felt so lost without my cell phone, like I might get the most important email of my life and it would just sit there for hours, unread. Not that I was expecting an email like that, but still.
My room was at the very end of the hall, a corner room. I assumed that was why it was so narrow. Best coffin in the place, I thought, and then instantly hated myself for going there. It wasn’t terrible. I mean, sure, all the furniture was miniaturized. There was a twin extra-long bed, which still didn’t make it any roomier. I had a massive bed at home, and I loved her dearly. She was my queen, and I was her loyal subject. Well, her loyal subject in exile.
At the foot of my minibed was a wardrobe that looked suspiciously like a locker, a vestige of when this place had been an all-boys’ boarding school. I’d tried and failed to squish my still-packed suitcase inside the night before, and had kicked it under the bed in defeat. It stuck out, and I’d already tripped over it. Twice.
I also had a wooden desk and chair, and two huge windows that were stuck open permanently, for fresh air. The best part about my room, though, was the view: an endless stretch of woods and sky, with a distant haze of mountains. If I hadn’t known why we were in the middle of nowhere, it might have been peaceful.
I rummaged through my desk drawers until I found the thick, glossy handbook I’d been given the night before, and climbed into bed to read it. I figured studying the rules was the best thing to do, since I didn’t want to accidentally fail breakfast again.
God, the handbook was tedious. I could feel myself falling asleep as I read about suggested Wellness dress options. I tried to stay awake, but I’d been up for most of the night, and there hadn’t been any coffee at breakfast. . . .
I woke up groggy and disoriented. The handbook was on the floor, pages down, like it was trying to scuttle away. I didn’t blame it. When I checked my wrist, I realized I’d been out for a while.
I stretched and walked over to the window that faced the woods, watching for the four students to return. It was getting late, and I wondered if I’d missed them entirely. We were all supposed to dress out for PE, which was ironically called Wellness, by two thirty. Except I wasn’t cleared for Wellness yet. I was supposed to go to the medical building instead.
I was just about to head over when I saw them emerge from a grove of trees. Sadie was out front, an expensive camera swinging over her shoulder. Nick was there, too, his horn-rimmed glasses glinting in the sun. Bringing up the rear was this punk kid in black skinny jeans and Docs who looked like he was in a band, and a tall black girl who was shaking leaves from the hem of a billowing lace dress like she’d just stepped off the stage in a school play. They strolled back toward the dorms as though they owned the place, and in that moment, they did.
I watched as Sadie stopped to take a picture of the group, solemnly raising her camera and fiddling with the lens. Instead of posing, they stopped where they were, as though frozen, letting her capture the moment forever.
I remembered at least this much about her: she’d taken photos all the time at summer camp, sneaking out to the woods and disappearing for hours. She was all elbows and skinned knees back then, and I was one of the shortest boys in my cabin.
My memories of that summer were hazy and mostly had to do with being terrified of this one asshole cabinmate of mine who threatened to piss on everyone’s beds if we didn’t give him our commissary snacks. We were starting eighth grade in the fall, and almost overnight everyone had gone from pointing out girls with visible bra straps to girls who were definitely gonna blow them after the lower-seniors dance, at this rock in the woods. For their sake, I’d hoped the rock had a sign-up sheet.
I hadn’t exchanged more than a couple of sentences with Sadie. I didn’t say much of anything during that terrible summer, where two guys got kicked out of my cabin for stealing and a disgusting game of soggy cookie had ended so badly that my only real friend went home two weeks early, his parents threatening a lawsuit. But I still remembered Sadie, with purple rubber bands in her braces and these tie-dyed shorts, always alone, and always stooping to photograph a leaf, or a flower.
It had seemed impossible that I’d recognize anyone at Latham, that there could be a familiar face up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, hundreds of miles from home. But the more I considered it, the more it made a terrible kind of sense.
At Latham House, we were asked to believe in unlikely miracles. In second chances. We woke up each morning hoping that the odds had somehow swung in our favor.
But that’s the thing about odds. Roll a die twice, and you expect two different results. Except it doesn’t work that way. You could roll the same side over and over again, the laws of the universe intact and unchanging with each turn. It’s only when you consider the past that the odds change. That things become less and less likely.
Here’s something I know because I’m a nerd: up until the middle of the twentieth century, dice were made out of cellulose nitrate. It’s a material that remains stable for decades but, in a flash, can decompose. The chemical compound breaks down, releasing nitric acid. So every time you roll a die, there’s a small chance that it won’t give you a result at all, that instead it will cleave, crumble, and explode.