I sit in Train Car C, harsh rain pelting down on the roof. My mother is asleep, her head resting on my shoulder.
“She’s safe,” my mother sleep-talks from time to time. She boasts a small smile. “She’s heading home.”
But that’s my mother speaking, not me. I am not heading home, I was just ripped from my home and my family in Brindlewood. The air in Rhode Island seemed nicer. Now I feel like I am wading through a bog, sludge and debris pulling me further and further away from where I’m meant to be.
“We have arrived at the Hartwood Train Station. The doors will open in a few moments. Thank you for choosing Chapel Express, we hope to see you soon.” The conductor clicks off the intercom.
“Mom, wake up. We’re here.” I nudge her with my left elbow.
“Oh honey, I am so happy. Dad and Sam are waiting at home. Home!” The mention of Sam makes me smile. I haven’t seen my brother in years and am excited to see how he’s grown.
Street lights flicker on and off, barely illuminating the sidewalk ahead. It’s a sign.
Maybe Aunty is trying to communicate with me…
Driving to my house, I feel as if I am in a vacuum. The world is silent; reality seems altered. The neighborhood lights cast a warm glow above the horizon line.
The taxi stops in front of a house. It is made of foreign bricks and wood, the door is painted fire hydrant red.
“Mallory!” My father opens the door and runs at me, arms spread wide and tears in his eyes. “You’re home.” I cringe. This is not home.
My brother is hesitant, slowly walking down the gravel path. “Hey, Mal,” he says.
“Hi bud,” I muster a smile.
“We got you fried chicken from Red’s. It used to be your favorite.”
“We thought that might be a little nicer than what you are used to eating.” My father jokes.
“Richard, now is not the time to say such things,” my mother starts. “Mallory needs a nice meal, and then she needs to rest. It’s been a long day for her.”
I look at her, my eyes cold and face hot, “You have no idea what I need.”
I walk inside and slam the door shut. I hate the color red.
Now, I wait in my therapist’s office. Dr. Catchings is five minutes late. “At
Brindlewood, we valued others’ time,” I think to myself. I sit on a checkered chair; a seam has burst open. I mindlessly pull out the stuffing, like wisps of cotton candy, and look around the room. It is painted a dark gray; on the walls hang posters that read ‘Keep your head up!’ or ‘You can do it!’ I shake my head. These types of platitudes make me feel nothing. Well, ever since I left, I’ve felt nothing.
Above my therapist’s desk are diplomas hailing from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The Ivy League trifecta. This is just another reason I’m happy my parents didn’t come with me. The whole get-your-PhD-from-some-fancy-school-path was the path they chose for me. But I could never do that. Not after experiencing life at Brindlewood.
My eyes dart from above the desk to the full-length mirror. I look fourteen, but in reality,
I am four years older. Strands of my mousy brown hair are knotted, the rest falls down my back. My grey eyes seem lifeless, the hint of an empty grin rests on my face. Drowning in a sea of my navy and black sweatsuit, I am melancholy personified.
“I am so sorry to keep you waiting, Mallory,” Dr. Catchings says, sliding her way through the door. “This doesn’t usually happen. My son managed to get a wad of bubblegum in his hair, and I had to drop my daughter off at fencing practice. And on our first appointment, too!” Dr.
Catchings lets out a laugh, expecting me to do the same. I don’t.
“So, Mallory, how are you today?” Dr. Catchings asks.
I shrug, “Better than yesterday, I guess.”
“You seem to be coping well, considering you were in a… um, in a—”
“It’s alright, you can say it,” I interrupt. “I was in a cult.”
“Oh, I wasn’t going to say that. I would refer to it as an extremely controlling and stressful academic environment. Could you share more?”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Start at the beginning.”
Her question triggers a flood of memories. I am thirteen again. With skinned elbows and gangly legs, I look like a newborn giraffe. My mother and father wish to see me succeed in life, to become a lawyer or doctor, so they sent me here, to Brindlewood Academy. It’s marketed as, “A boarding school that strives to be excellent. A place for budding teenagers to ensure that their future is bright and successful.” When my parents heard this, they were sold.
A bright faced couple walks down the cobblestone path. My heart rate quickens and my hands retreat into tight fists, a sign of my nerves getting the best of me.
“Mallory, so nice to meet you! I am Sabrina Drindle, and this is my husband, John.”
Mr. Drindle looks at me, a hint of whiskers on his chin, “Welcome to your new home.” My eyes dart around the grounds. The white building, hailing from the late 1800s stands tall, proudly boasting a vaulted roof in a grand cathedral style. Stained glass windows depict scenes of doves and dancing children. A pine forest majestically grows to my left; to my right is an expansive field of thistle and clover.
“So what’s the protocol here?” My mother asks. “Can I help my daughter unpack?”
Mrs. Drindle speaks up. “Unfortunately the entrance to the dorms is under construction. A faulty beam is being replaced, so we are only allowing staff and students in the building at this time. I will give you a minute to say your goodbyes.” Her smile is sweet, her teeth like sugar cubes.
“Bye, Mal. You’re going to do great. Dad and Sam want me to say bye for them, too. Make us proud.” My mother pulls me to her chest and wraps me tight, squeezing and pulling and then letting go.
I say nothing. Maybe if I don’t say a thing, this won’t be real. Maybe I can dissolve into the background. My parents have forgotten me at grocery stores countless times. Fading away is kind of my thing.
“Mal, honey, speak to me. You’ll regret not saying goodbye.” My mother’s eyes look
“No real family would send one of their own away,” I whisper.
Mrs. Drindle says it’s time and whisks me away. I don’t look back.
“So, if I am understanding correctly, you didn’t want to attend Brindlewood at first?” And just like that, I am back in 5th Street Therapy, the gloomy weather and howling sirens mirroring my inner world.
“Yeah, I guess. I mean, I was pretty scared. My parents wouldn’t even let me go to sleepaway camp, and then they drop me off at a boarding school. It seemed pretty messed up to me. But then, everything changed.” A wistful look appears on my face.
“Can you speak more into that, Mallory?”
“Well, it took a few weeks. But then I saw how everyone had a role, everything had a purpose. We were all interwoven, like a picnic basket in July. I felt like instead of leaving my family, I was coming home to my true one. I was able to make friends much easier than in elementary school, and the teachers were all very kind. The lessons weren’t too difficult; most of the time was spent outdoors and watching the clouds flit by.”
“Mallory, it seems to me that you are spending a lot of time romanticizing your past.
Would you agree?
“I can see that.”
I’ve found that it’s easier telling people what they want to hear.
New week, same therapist. The burning fire of rage that used to inhabit my being has been replaced with numbness. Dr. Catchings sits across from me, scribbling out notes in chicken scratch.
My therapist looks up, “Are you ready to start today’s session, Mallory?”
“How about you walk me through a typical day at Brindlewood?”
Like a lark flying upwards, I break through the clouds of my mind. Higher and higher I go, until I gain a clear view of what used to be.
It’s six o’clock. The soft morning light trickles in through the window. Straightening my white pleated dress with puffed sleeves, I watch a few of the Sisters take turns braiding each other’s hair.
“We don’t want to be late to the Morning Tribute,” I say. I am always on top of things; I like to think everyone relies on me.
We find ourselves in a room boasting perfectly polished mahogany wood panels. Aunty appears almost like magic, her very presence demanding attention. Today, she is wearing a velvet dress; it is the color of a forest on a foggy morning. Her hair is thrown in a loose bun, a bronze band encircling her head. I give her a smile and hope she notices. Everyday, I think her approval of me grows.
“Children, lift up your hands. It is time to say the Morning Tribute.”
By instinct, I raise my hands, palms facing upwards. A few of the Younger Ones refuse to lift their hands. The teachers rush to their side, gripping their wrists and forcing them upward.
“I’ll wait,” Aunty announces.
I wonder why these children are so resistant. The best thing they could do for themselves is relinquish their control.
Once all hands are up, Aunty says, “Begin.”
“Through submission comes virtue; we devote our day to the greater good of
Brindlewood.” It is a symphony of voices, the sound of home.
“You may go and attend to your chores.”
The people in the room scatter. I am an Overseer. I make sure that all the Younger Ones are attending to their work. Being an Overseer is an honor; only the most diligent are chosen for this work. I hope this job will be a wonderful foreshadowing of what’s to come.
The morning lesson covers Ancient Egypt. Professor Cholk is my teacher, and while I despise him, I would never speak such things out loud. His beady eyes are devoid of life; his greasy hair is slicked back. He gets off-topic easily. I find it odd that he dresses in the uniform that the Brothers wear, when there is a more elaborate dress code for the Council. He claims that the clothes that he wears make him appear relatable, but I attribute it to his nagging fear of growing up. Yet here I am, smiling and nodding and taking notes. I must keep up my Brindlewood golden girl image.
After a lunch of oatmeal and tea, I go to the stream with a handful of Brothers and Sisters. There we are, splashing in the cool water and basking in the sun. I find a rock that seems as if it were formed just to hold me.
“Hey, Clay?” I turn to a Brother.
“Do you think Aunty is noticing everything that I’m doing? Because I think she might be. She’s been awfully nice to me, and it seems like things are changing. In the best way possible.”
Clay laughs, “Mallory, don’t be ridiculous. To Aunty, you are just another girl in a white dress. A minion.”
“Clay!” I gasp. “What if she heard you?”
“What if she did? That might actually work out pretty well for me; I want out.” I get up from my place on the rock, and I run. I want nothing to do with those who are feebleminded and against Brindlewood. A person like that has no hope.
I enter the assembly room, trying to disassociate myself with what Clay said at the stream. I choose the seat furthest away from him, and wait. Aunty appears and begins to speak. “The Outside is a very dangerous place. It is a place with no morals, no knowledge, and absolutely no decency. No one from The Outside is to be trusted. You all are a new generation of leaders, which is why you need to stand firm in the values taught here.”
The audience chants in unison, “Brindlewood is life. It is the truth and foundation for all.” Our voices melt together, some faces stone cold. Not mine, though. I always paste a smile on my face. That way, maybe Aunty will approve.
“You seem to really care for this Aunty figure.”
Dr. Catchings’ voice cuts through my memories.
“Well yeah. Aunty is our leader. Her official title is Madame Antonia, but she insisted that we call her Aunty. You know, to make it seem like family. I was just so close to gaining her approval. But then I left. And I don’t know what she thinks of me anymore.”
“Mallory, I want you to know, that a person like Aunty is incapable of giving her approval. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“If my diplomas on that wall could speak, they would tell you of all the years I spent working towards my parents’ approval. Your story resonates with me, and I encourage you to realize that Aunty’s lack of approval is not your own lack of worth.”
I look back at the diplomas hanging on the wall. Just a few seconds ago, they seemed to be the golden ticket to a happy life. Now, I see them as limp pieces of paper in cheap Target frames.
In my mind’s eye, I leave the therapist’s office and find myself in my childhood bedroom. In my backpack sits a math worksheet with a big, fat F scrawled in red at the top of the page. I rock myself back and forth in a vain effort to calm down. But I can’t. Tears roll down my face.
A soft knock on my door, “Mallory?”
Sam walks in, his hair wild and frizzy.
I press against my eyes, pleading the tears to stop. “Hi Sam.”
“Mal, why are you crying?”
I get off my bed and crawl to my backpack. “You see this?” I pull out the worksheet. “A doctor would never fail math class. I don’t think I can be the person Mom and Dad want me to be.”
“But you’re only in sixth grade! Come on, let’s make you your own diploma! We have some glue and markers. It would be fun Mallory.” I sniffle, “Good idea, bud. Let’s do it.”
We pull out the paper and pens and pompoms and glue. Together, we create the “diploma” for the world’s best family. I promised I would never forget that day. For five years of my life, I did.
I look in front of me and see that Dr. Catchings’ eyes are glossy. She turns and looks out the window, a sad smile on her face.
In this moment, I realize my insignificance in this world, my smallness in comparison with the grandeur of the universe. My therapist has a life too, filled with grief and joy and the overwhelming mundanity of suburbia. And so we sit for awhile, looking out the window, drowning in our own worlds. Maybe I can call this place home again.
Today marks my third therapy session with Dr. Catchings. When I look in the mirror, I see that my hair is no longer knotted.
“Should we begin?” Dr. Catchings asks.
She gives me a reassuring smile. Today, I give her one back.
“Tell me about your last day at Brindlewood.”
Here we go again, spiraling down the rabbit hole that is my mind.
It’s September, the light golden, the grass swaying gracefully in the wind. How one’s life can change in just a few months.
“This is the forest primeval,” a voice booms across the field. Children seated on vibrant quilts look up. The story is just getting started.
Today is our annual Longfellow festival. Dressed in purples and wisps of gold, the
Council Members take turns reciting their poem of choice. Professor Cholk has chosen Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. Halfway through, he stops and looks up. “Mallory,” he points directly at me.
I stand up, my whole body shaking with excitement.
“It is now your turn,” he says, weathered poem in his hand.
I am trying to make sense of it all. Could this be it? Am I about to be appointed to the Council?
I stand like a deer in headlights, waiting for further instruction. Waiting for them to show their approval in front of all of the members.
“Mallory, your time at this festival is up. We can no longer have someone of your character within our community. Because you keep people at a distance, you will never experience authentic and meaningful connections. You aren’t fit to be a leader because you lack the competitive spirit. There is no room for small minds like yours at Brindlewood. The Academy has determined you can no longer walk among us.”
Our leader rises from her seat. “Mallory, it is clear to us that you are not meant to be at Brindlewood. Your desires and your wants do not align with your soul’s needs. Nothing we do can help you. We apologize, but you are too far gone.”
I don’t remember my reaction. I could have sobbed, or maybe I shook, or maybe I started to laugh. What I do know is that I let out a little, “I was so close.” I feel as if I just drank a cocktail of shame and rejection.
All eyes are on me. The Younger Ones are crying, the Sisters are confused, the Brothers, filled with rage. I catch Clay’s eye; his eyes are filled with fires that cannot be tamed. “Don’t cause a scene,” I whisper and hope that he can read my lips.
Can’t the Council see they are wreaking havoc on what was supposed to be a day full of dreams?
“Mallory,” our leader breaks the silence. “Your parents have decided to take you out of Brindlewood. We thought that we could trust you, but we realize we were wrong.” A dagger in my heart, twisting and turning, then bleeding out.
“That sounds like a very emotionally charged moment.”
I have to remind myself that I’m still at therapy. “Yeah,” I say. “Charged is the right word. Dr. Catchings, will I ever get over the self-loathing and embarrassment that I feel from buying into this Brindlewood propaganda?”
“Of course, Mallory. Healing takes time and effort, but through awareness and conscious decisions, you can settle into a place you can call home.”
“I can’t believe this was my life for the past five years. It doesn’t even seem real.” “Mallory, I want to validate that this was an incredibly toxic environment. The tactics of this school’s leadership were intended to rob you of your identity. You have every right to feel the wide expanse of emotions, from grief to rage to confusion, and maybe all three at the same time. You experienced a mighty betrayal. I want you to know I’m here to help you find your way back to yourself.”
Hearing those words is the closest I have been to experiencing joy in a very long time.
It’s November now, and the fog settles over this sleepy Connecticut town. This morning, I decided to steal one of Sam’s sweaters; it is the color of oatmeal and milky chamomile tea. Midway through our session, Dr. Catchings asks, “So, Mallory, why did your parents pull you out of Brindlewood?”
“Oh, well you know how they sent me there in the first place so I could get into an Ivy League? Yeah I wanted nothing to do with that.” I am reminded of her diplomas hanging on the wall. “No offense,” I quickly add.
Dr. Catchings holds up a hand, “None taken.”
I continue, “I’ll admit, I kind of stopped talking with my parents. I’d send a letter once a month, but I had my family at Brindlewood. In the last letter I sent to them, I told them I wasn’t going to college. I had followed all the rules and had become the golden girl of Brindlewood, and I was this close to being appointed to a Council Member. My parents didn’t like that, and they decided to take me out of Brindlewood. It was just days before my eighteenth birthday, so they legally had the right to do so.”
“Was your decision to not attend college influenced by the fact that you might be appointed to a Council Member?”
“I see.” Dr. Catchings jots down a few sentences in her notebook, then says, “It looks like our time is up. I appreciate you speaking candidly about your experiences. Are you still up for an appointment next Tuesday?”
“Yeah,” I say. “See you Tuesday.”
I am at the bus stop, waiting to hitch a ride. On one end of the bench, a man in a blue corduroy jacket reaches in his backpack and pulls out a sandwich wrapped in parchment. An elderly couple carrying umbrellas mosey down the sidewalk.
“You just gotta let the people in!” A man preaches to someone on the other end of the phone.
I need to call my mom. Frantic, sweating, shaking, I pull out my phone.
It rings for two seconds, then I hear her voice. “Hey honey! How did today’s session go?”
“It was good.”
“I’m glad, honey. Are you going to be home for dinner?”
“Well, I’m gonna go pick up Sam from band practice.”
“Why did you ever send me there? To Brindlewood?”
“Mal, your father and I ask ourselves that every day. We fell for the marketing plan hook, line, and sinker. We drank their punch, and we forced you to drink it too. It is our biggest regret to date, and we may never forgive ourselves for it. I could have never imagined those in power would have abused it like they did.” Her voice cracks. “But I promise you this. For the rest of my life, I will devote everyday to helping you heal.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too. Get home safe.”
I get up from the bus stop, cross the street, and pick up a bag of fried chicken from Red’s. On this rainy Thursday evening, I’ve decided that I want to get better. My identity was robbed from me, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. The place I called home for five years of my life was soul-crushing and spirit-dimming, all the while hiding behind the guise of joy and courage. But I have learned that there is still hope and goodness in this world of mine. I pull out a crispy piece of chicken, take a triumphant bite, and begin my journey home.
Maya McLeroy is a writer of poetry and fiction. She hails from the Pacific Northwest, and is an old soul trapped in a sixteen year old’s body. Maya writes in hopes of capturing the beauty of being alive. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring the great outdoors or baking chocolate chip cookies.