We weren’t supposed to ask Candace about what happened to her. It was strictly forbidden. A special letter had been sent home to all the parents, signed by Sister Mary herself, asking them to “choose an appropriate time and place” to have “a frank and heartfelt discussion” with their girls about “the tragic occurrences of this summer involving Candace Hayes.” The purpose of the discussion would be to “assuage fears” and remind us that Candace, having been through such a terrible ordeal, “should be treated with the utmost sensitivity, which includes not referring to the incident at all, either directly or indirectly.” I snuck a peek at the letter after my mother had opened it. I noticed when it came that she tucked it away in her desk, rather than leave it on the hall table, which is generally what she did with letters from Saint Francis of Assisi. When she was gone to yoga, I pulled it out and read it then placed it back where it had been. And then I waited for the “frank and heartfelt discussion.”
It came on the drive back up to Saint Francis, which I thought was evidence that my parents had been avoiding it. No one liked to think about what happened to Candace let alone talk about it. Not parents anyway. I was pretty sure that when we got back to school everyone would be curious enough about what it had been like to have a million questions. So I guess Sister Mary’s letter was a good idea. The “incident” she referred to in her letter was Candace’s abduction from her family home and the thirty-seven days she was missing and later believed dead.
Until she was spotted at a rest stop by Myra Barnes.
Myra was on a church bus trip and sitting in the bus, deciding whether to get off and buy a burger, or eat the ham sandwich she had sensibly packed with the intention of curbing unnecessary spending when she spotted the blonde-haired girl in the pink t-shirt and thought she looked familiar. Myra thought nothing of it, and but for the way the girl kept her head down and seemed vaguely intimidated by the much older man she was with, Myra may not have bothered trying to place her. But try she did, and by the time the other day-trippers had begun piling back onto the bus, Myra was pretty sure she knew who the girl was.
“Linda,” she said to her seat-mate. “Does that child look like anyone you know?”
Linda had gotten off the bus for a burger and scarcely looked over at where Myra pointed out the girl and man sitting on the hood of an old, rusty Ford, eating French fries and hot dogs. But as soon as she did, her eyes widened.
“That can’t be her, can it?”
“Oh, I think it’s worth finding out,” Myra reported saying to her friend.
So Myra and Linda got off the bus and found the state police substation inside, telling the sole officer on duty their suspicions. And that was how Candace was “recovered”. There had been a brief effort at denial and then the man had made a break for it and been arrested. The entire time, according to Myra and Linda, Candace had sat stock still, saying nothing, doing nothing except watching events unfold as though it was all happening to someone else. Myra and Linda had become media sensations, telling their story over and over on different television shows, charming audiences with their colorful hats and the excitable way they relayed their story.
I watched them on a morning show with my Mom and found them funny, but it was weird trying to connect what they were describing to the Candace I knew. She was many things, but meek was not one of them. Or it didn’t used to be.
“Now, I know you’re probably feeling a little trepidation about Candace being back at school,” my mother began.
She was driving, as she always did when my parents returned me to boarding school. She said my father’s driving on the Taconic Parkway was a “harrowing white-knuckle ordeal” that she had no intention of voluntarily sitting through.
“Not at all,” I said.
But I put aside my magazine because I had been waiting for this talk for days and was frankly a little disappointed that they hadn’t plucked up the courage before now. I was curious about what they would say because my parents, like those of most of my friends, were clueless about what fifteen-year olds’ lives were actually like.
“Well, first up, did you want to ask us anything?” my Dad piped in.
In a split second, I thought of a dozen sex-related questions that might torment them but my better nature won out.
“How do you think you’re going to feel when you see her?”
I shrugged. “Fine. I mean, I’m sure it’s going to be weird for like, ten minutes but I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Hayley, it’s important that you not let your curiosity overcome your sensitivity,” my mother said. “We know you to be a wonderful, empathetic young woman and that’s how we expect you to conduct yourself where Candace is concerned.”
In point of fact, my parents had never used the words “wonderful” or “empathetic” to describe me before. “Precocious” and “impertinent” came more readily to mind if memory served.
“It’s not like they haven’t covered most of it in the news,” I pointed out.
And it was true. The entire country came to know about Candace because of how closely her story mirrored that of another pretty blonde girl, the one in Utah. But Donald Wilson, Candace’s captor didn’t even have the pretense of religious zeal to mask his pedophilic tendencies. He was just your garden-variety pervert, who trolled the internet pretending to be a seventeen year old boy, gaining the confidence of young girls and then luring them out of their homes. Candace, according to news reports, told police that she snuck out to a pre-arranged meeting spot a block from her house to meet a boy who called himself Brad who she’d been chatting with online. Instead, waiting for her was Donald Wilson who claimed to be Brad’s father. He ordered Candace into his car, telling her he had caught Brad sneaking out and now would take her home to tell her parents what she had done. Only Donald Wilson didn’t take her home.
“Yes, that’s true,” my Dad said. “But the news is only ever part of the story. And what they can’t know is how Candace feels, and how difficult this has to be for her. So you need to keep that in mind if you’re tempted to pry.”
“I won’t pry,” I said wearily.
The Talk had fallen well below my expectations. Given the opportunity to show their parental chops, my mother and father had resorted to the hackneyed old appeal to conscience, a ploy which – had they been more than rank amateurs – they should know never worked. Ever.
As we pulled through the imposing wrought iron gates of Saint Francis, I looked up from my magazine. It impressed me every time, this castle-like gray stone edifice that housed my boarding school. I’d been going here since I was eleven years old and loved it. My parents – as did most of the parents, I would guess – believed it to be something of a finishing school. Most of the graduates went on to Bryn Mawr, Vassar or Wellesley and admittedly, they knew how to carry themselves like debutantes but underneath, Saint Francis was a hotbed of teenager high jinks.
Girls routinely snuck out to meet guys from nearby West Point and to take the late train into Manhattan to smoke, drink and do all the things their parents hoped to shield them from. The nuns who ran Saint Francis were quaintly oblivious to most of it. So long as our skirts remained of appropriate length and we didn’t curse, or let our grades fall too low, they believed they were making headway in their quest to hold back the tide of modernism and rampant sexuality.
“So here we are,” Mom said brightly.
She hated it when I had to go back to school. When I was home for holidays, she became almost frenzied in her efforts to make sure we had “quality time” together. We shopped, got pedicures and haircuts, did lunch at trendy downtown restaurants and checked out new art in galleries all over Manhattan. As the only child of well-off parents, I was spoiled and I knew it, but they didn’t. Both my mother and father labored under the impression that because they were materially-blessed, I was likely to be disaffected like some character in a Bret Easton Ellis short story. The truth was, I loved both of them with the same fervor with which they loved me, and was bothered by very little beyond the usual teenager stuff. Although all the developmental books would say I was at that stage, I didn’t find either of them even slightly annoying and looked forward only to the day when they could handle the truth about me.
The truth was that I was almost sixteen, had had two boyfriends, both of whom I’d had sex with. I had tried three drugs – pot, e, and cocaine. I liked none of them and had held fast to my decision, made recently, to avoid all mood- and mind-altering substances altogether. I was way smarter than even they knew, wanted to be a professor specializing in women and children’s issues and would not consider getting married until I was at least thirty-five. And the abiding truth about me was that I felt, most of the time, like a grown woman trapped in a child’s body, waiting for my physical self to catch up with the rest of me.
BMWs, Range Rovers and Audis, sprinkled with the occasional Bentley competed for room in the circular flagstone driveway where parents were unloading their kids. I scanned the crowd for Candace but didn’t see her. Instead I saw a familiar face topped by kinky, flyaway reddish-brown hair. Abby came running toward me and we threw ourselves at each other, jumping up and down like excited puppies.
“Ohmigod look at your hair!” She squealed delightedly, running her hand over my newly-shorn locks. “You look so pretty!”
“And you lost tons of weight,” I returned the compliment. “You look as skinny as Lindsay Lohan when she was on drugs!”
My mother watched with a pleased smile and waited until we’d calmed down to give Abby a hug.
“Abigail,” she said. “You do look wonderful. How was your summer?”
“Meh. My Dad’s been on tour, so I was pretty much by myself.”
“Oh, well I’m sure he spent as much time with you as he could,” Mom said.
Abby’s father was a famous folk singer á la James Taylor. He seemed alternately to forget that he had a kid and to smother her.
“Almost no time at all. But he’s here now . . .” Abby looked around and waved vaguely in the direction of the fleet of luxury cars behind her.
“Hayley, come grab a couple of these, would you?”
Abby and I went to help my Dad, taking a couple of my suitcases and beginning the long walk up to the dorms. In Saint Francis’ five-story main building, classrooms occupied the first and second floors and the dorms were on the top three. There were no elevators, and some parents brought staff along just for the purpose of lugging all of their kids’ crap up the steps.
The stairs were crowded with girls dragging stuff up, or bounding back down and friends greeting each other and catching up on gossip after the long drought of summer. Abby and I had skyped almost every single day, but had promised not to use the webcam because we wanted to be surprised at each others’ transformation. As I watched her pull my bag up each step, I took in Abby’s significantly thinner frame. Even though I’d complimented her, I wasn’t sure it was a good thing. How had she lost that much weight so fast? I knew she wouldn’t admit it out loud, but her father’s neglect was really painful for her, especially since she had no mother and all. Her weight loss and gain, swinging back and forth like a pendulum could almost always be related to something her Dad, the great Riley Armstrong, was or was not doing. I felt certain that his leaving her in their immense Malibu house to fend for herself, with only their household staff as company, had something to do with why she’d become so waif-like.
“So did you see her?” Abby asked, looking over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs.
“No. Did you?”
Even some of the parents had to be curious about Candace given all the media that had surrounded her case.
“Yeah. She’s unloading her stuff through the side door.”
Only the nuns used the side door. But it was understandable that they’d made an exception for Candace.
“Any idea who she’s rooming with?”
“Well get this,” Abby lowered her voice. “Last year she and Diana picked each other, but after everything happened, I heard a rumor that Diana’s mom asked for a switch.”
“That’s pretty cold. It’s not like kidnapping and rape is contagious.”
“So anyway, Candace might have a single is what I heard.”
“Oh perfect. Isolate her even more than she’ll already be,” I rolled my eyes. “Grown-ups can be so stupid sometimes.”
“Tell me about it.”
My parents took me out for the obligatory lunch in town, after which they pressed way too much money into my palm and let me out in front of the main building. As usual, my Mom was slow about pulling away so I leaned in to kiss her one last time to ease her on her way. As I stood waving from the front door, I saw Candace. She was hugging her parents at the side of the building, all three of them locked in an embrace that looked like they were hanging on for their very lives. A wave of sadness engulfed me for a moment, and I wondered about her with a seriousness that I had not previously. I didn’t even realize that I was frozen in place, staring at her until someone touched my shoulder.
It was Sister Catherine.
“Miss Fields,” she said smiling. “Wonderful to see you back this term. Might I suggest you make your way up to your room?”
“Yes. Thank you, Sister Catherine.”
I turned reluctantly away and sprinted the three flights up to my room where Abby was busy hanging a god-awful tapestry on the wall over our desks.