Isabelle did not want to go to the new school. First of all, she had never stepped foot in the state where it was located, and it wasn’t high on her list of places to visit in the immediate future. She hadn’t heard many exciting things about the state. Mostly, that they made cars and more cars (despite the fact that not many people were buying them). During recent years, the city had become something of an urban ghost town, largely populated with abandoned warehouses and charred A-frame houses that had never fully burned to the ground. There were several empty churches where people no longer sang or prayed.
Not far beyond the hopeless city were the suburbs. The school was located in one of the wealthiest suburbs, where the auto executives lived in their mansions with long driveways and automated gates. The school’s 319-acre grounds were surrounded by a red-bricked wall, and the two entrances were manned by guards most of the time. Why would anyone want to go to school in such a place?
Her mother, Janice, argued that the campus was nothing but beautiful. It sat beside a large lake, where a small family of swans lived. There was a Japanese garden with miniature wooden bridges and oversize goldfish floating in its reed-rimmed ponds. In the late spring, a hill of daffodils emerged, their brilliant buttercup color painting the gentle slope. And the buildings—they were poetic, too. The entire compound was designed by a pair of Finnish architects. Brothers. As a result, these weren’t your standard, institutional buildings. Every doorknob was different. Intricate tapestries hung from the large walls. There was even a weaving studio filled with wooden looms, each one made up of a balanced system of rising and sinking shafts, where the students made rugs and other utilitarian textiles.
Despite all of this, Isabelle was not happy. Her oversized trunk was stuffed with her blouses, shirts, pants, shorts, and underwear. Nametags with her name were ironed on to every article of clothing. Janice appeared to be obsessed with making sure that Isabelle didn’t lose anything at the new school. As she drove her old, yellow Ford station wagon north on Interstate 75, across state lines, Janice tried to make small talk. About the weather. About the courses that Isabelle had registered for. About her new roommate. Daniel Neuberger. Such a strange name for a girl.
Isabelle only nodded and stared out at the industrial landscape that had replaced the open fields and barn silos that she knew. The uneven steps of factory stacks perforated the dull horizon. Lazy loops of razor wire intersected the top edges of chain-link fences that surrounded the parking lots filled with factory workers’ cars. There were signs. NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. NO TOXIC MATERIALS BEYOND THIS POINT. Isabelle considered all of the things that she would miss at her old school. Her longtime friend, Cindy, from down the street. The football games in the fall, when they would sit up in the bleachers drinking Southern Comfort from Burger King cups. The boy whom she had set her sights on as her future boyfriend. He played varsity soccer and lived in the nice part of town, where the houses had driveways made of black asphalt and turquoise-blue pools with large curving slides that stayed slick and wet.
Isabelle didn’t stop to consider that new friends, football games, and potential future boyfriends might exist at the new school. No, she didn’t think about that at all, because it was much easier to be angry with her mother. She had been angry with Janice for most of her life—and she figured that this most recent turn of events provided at least another decade of anger and resentment for all of the mistakes that her mother had made up to this point, and for the ones that she would continue to propagate in the future.
After Janice said goodbye, Isabelle sat in the empty dorm room. Tears formed in the back of her throat. She had no idea what to do. The most logical step might have been to unpack, but this action suggested she was acquiescing to the current situation. And she wasn’t sure if she was ready to do this quite yet.
There was a knock on the door.
It creaked open. There stood a young man with a head of dark curly hair and thin shoulders. He was tall and wore a pair of tortoise-shell, horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, its sleeves frayed, with the school’s name emblazoned across the chest in capital letters. He carried two large canvas duffel bags. Monogrammed initials—DAN—were stitched into the side of each bag. Isabelle knew that the school was coed, but was certain that she read somewhere in the brochure that the boys and girls slept in separate dorms. She remembered a picture of two girls sitting on neatly-made beds with their textbooks spread out like fans of playing cards in front of them.
“You have the wrong room—”
The boy dropped both bags onto the dull green carpet, took out a piece of paper from the back pocket of his jeans, and then glanced up at the worn bronze numbers that were nailed into the center of the door.
“Nope,” he said. “This is right. My name is Daniel Neuberger.”
Isabelle felt something drop to the floor of her stomach.
“I knew about you,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know why they didn’t tell you about me.”
“Talk to Mr. Huntington,” he said, grabbing the handles of his bags and depositing them in front of one of the closets. “He should have told you already.”
In the headmaster’s office, Isabelle learned the specifics about the arrangement. In exchange for her tuition and the expenses of room and board during the next three years, she would become pregnant—with Daniel as the father—and give birth to a healthy baby. This act was only required of her once. The baby would be given up for adoption (on the black market, so that a generous fee could be fetched). Given the fact, Mr. Huntington explained, that Isabelle and Daniel had scored in the highest percentile of the entrance exam, it was very likely that a subset of their genes would produce an offspring of equally high intelligence. Did she know how desperate people were for a smart, healthy baby these days? They were willing to do just about anything.
Isabelle’s cheeks burned. Her breaths grew shorter. She had only gotten her period for the first time eleven months ago. She didn’t even tell her mother about it. During the first incident, she stuffed clutches of tissues into the cotton crotch of her underwear, hoping that the brownish-red discharge wouldn’t trickle onto her khaki pants. The second time, she mustered up the courage to make a trip to the drugstore on her bike, buy a box of maxi pads, and hide them in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink. It was during the fourth month that Janice discovered the bloody tissues in the bottom of the trash can.
“Isabelle, there are other students who have agreed to the same arrangement,” Mr. Huntington said. “You’re not the only one.”
“It’s against the law.”
“How else are you going to cover your tuition for three years?” Mr. Huntington said, twirling his gold-plated pen between his fingers. “Working in the bookstore for five hours a week only covers so much.”
“You can’t be serious—”
“I’m quite serious,” said Mr. Huntington, standing up from his desk.
He wore a pinstriped suit, a yellow button-down, and a navy bowtie specked with bright fuchsia dots. He was rotund, his belly hanging slightly over the beltline of his pressed slacks, and wore a full mustache, which he frequently touched.
“I want to call my mother.”
Mr. Huntington slid over the rotary phone with a row of translucent buttons representing all of his different lines. None of them glowed.
“Be my guest,” he said. “She’s already agreed to this. She signed the contract.”
Isabelle lifted the receiver. Her fingers trembled as she dialed her mother’s work number. The receptionist with the nasal voice picked up.
“Dentist’s office,” she said. “May I help you?”
“I want to speak to Janice Gray,” Isabelle said, staring at the headmaster’s wall with his many framed diplomas and awards of distinction. “It’s her daughter. It’s an emergency.”
Melodic elevator music took over the line. Mr. Huntington stepped outside of his office and spoke to his secretary.
“Izzy,” Janice said, picking up. “I’m in the middle of a cleaning. Did something happen?”
“They want me to share a room with a boy,” Isabelle said. “They want me to get pregnant.”
“Oh, darling,” Janice said with a stutter. “I’m sorry.”
“Come and get me.”
“What about your education? What about your future?”
“Mom, I’m a virgin—”
As Isabelle stood there, the immaculate office tilted and then swayed. Like she was suddenly lost in a funhouse of shifting floors and bending walls. Nothing about the office or the phone conversation felt real. Isabelle gripped the polished edge of the headmaster’s desk in order to steady her balance, taking in an extra breath. The room fell away—the diplomas and awards, the athletic fields that spread out like a gigantic sea outside the bay window, the tower that sat at one corner of the quad. Instead, black specks started to invade her field of vision. Her head felt dizzy.
“Oh, Izzy,” Janice said and then paused. “I just want what’s best for you.”
Isabelle coiled the phone cord around her index finger. The tip of it started to turn a light shade of blue. At some point during her conversation, Mr. Huntington had entered his office again. He held a legal pad in his hands and jotted down some notes.
“In the long run, it could be good for you,” she said. “Think of it as practice. A dress rehearsal.”
“I don’t know if I even want to have kids.”
“Don’t be crazy,” Janice said. “Everyone wants to be a mother.”
Isabelle could hear the metallic din of the dentist’s drill in the background. She untangled her finger from the cord.
“Think of it this way: at least you’re not going to that shit public high school,” Janice said. “Do you want to end up like me? Working as a dental hygienist in the middle of nowhere?”
“Goodbye,” Isabelle said, knowing there was nothing else to say.
“Am I right?” Mr. Huntington said.
Isabelle turned around and marched down the long corridor that led to the dorms. The hallway was crowded with other students coming and going from their classes. The air buzzed with the collision of their voices. Somewhere a boy whooped and hollered. Isabelle walked past the teeming dining hall and up the stairs that led to her area of the dormitory. Her limbs vibrated. Her head pounded. She did her best to focus on the rhythm of her feet as they hit the carpet. It felt like the only thing that she could do.
When Isabelle returned, Daniel had set up his side of the room. Several posters of rock stars—KISS, Jim Morrison, and The Boss—hung from the walls. Next to his bed was a strangely shaped lamp; gurgles of liquid red floated up and down like jellyfish.
“Did ya talk to Mr. Huntington?”
“It could be a good deal,” he said. “I mean, three years of free tuition and board.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“At least it’s temporary,” he said. “It will only last for nine months.”
“I hope you don’t mind that I set up my half of the room,” Daniel said. “I didn’t touch any of your stuff.”
Isabelle glanced at her trunk that still sat at the foot of her bed. Her stuffed animals and pillows from her bed at home were in a pile on the bare mattress. Suddenly she felt like crying. The tears sat on the edges of her lower eyelids. A sadness filled her up, from her feet to the crown of her head. She wanted to believe that there was something else out there—something beyond her hometown that sat in the middle of the whispering cornfields, one traffic light and one dusty diner, something beyond the manicured grounds of this private school not far from the industrial ghost town. There had to be another place. There had to be another way.
Isabelle started to unpack her sweaters and blouses. She noticed that Daniel had hung up all of his shirts on one side of the closet. His initials were stitched on many of the cuffs. Three pairs of polished penny loafers sat on the floor of the closet.
“I didn’t get to ask you before,” he said, sitting down on his bed. A blue plaid comforter now covered it. “Where are you from?”
“A small town in another state,” she said. “You’ve never heard of it.”
“I guess that’s why you’re here.”
“What do you mean?”
“The schools probably suck.”
Isabelle thought about the concrete monolithic building that sat on the outskirts of her town. It was four stories tall with a long bank of windows on its southern face. She imagined her friends congregating in the parking lot around their Camaros and Jeeps and Trans Ams and the football players and the stoners and the theater kids. Her friends would be arguing about who was the dealer with the best pot, about which liquor stores would accept a fake ID. They would be talking about the new guy who was working at the Burger King drive-through.
“Are you new, too?” she asked.
“Yeah, I begged my parents to come.”
“Sure,” he said. “My parents are crazy.”
“What kind of crazy?”
“Sometimes I think they might kill each other.”
“I’ve read about that.”
During the early years, her father’s many comings-and-goings from the racetrack and other women were punctuated by countless fights—slamming doors, broken glasses, and Janice’s drunken tears. Afterward, her mother could barely stand up, and Isabelle would wrap her arm around Janice’s waist and guide her into her bedroom. Then, she’d unplug the phone to make sure that her mother wouldn’t start making calls. (To her estranged sister, ex-boyfriends, the 1-800 fortune-teller.) When Isabelle was nine, her dad stopped returning, and no explanations were provided on his whereabouts. He just disappeared. The photos of him with Janice and Isabelle on the side tables in the living room and the highboy in her mother’s bedroom disappeared, too. Isabelle felt a little more at ease with this new development; it meant fewer broken things around the house. This only lasted so long. . .until Janice met the accountant, the life insurance salesman, and then the dentist.
“Want to go to the dining hall?”
“No, thanks,” said Isabelle, the neat pile of folded shirts on her bed becoming a blur. “I’m not hungry.”
Daniel walked out of their room, closing the door behind him. She lifted one of her packed Tretorns and threw it against the door. Tears rolled down her face, now blotchy with anger.