Shane Vaught had no memory of trying to kill his parents. He didn’t know how it had happened or whether he’d attempted to smother them, strangle them, stab them or what. He remembered telling his parents good night, going to bed, and then the next thing he knew, he was tied to a chair in the kitchen with an orange extension cord and his parents were standing across the room from him in their pajamas looking at him with terror and mistrust. Shane’s parents kept him tied to the chair until morning, telling him very little and holding whispered conferences with each other that Shane couldn’t quite hear. At one point Shane’s mom held a glass of grapefruit juice while he drank it through a straw. When the sun rose, Shane’s parents got dressed, packed a suitcase full of clothes for him, warily untied him, and escorted him into the back seat of the car. Shane’s mom kept a close eye on him while his dad drove. At one point Shane heard his mother whisper, “Can we stop somewhere to get handcuffs?”
Shane’s father said, “Just watch him.”
“Where are you taking me?” asked Shane. He was wearing his brown church pants and a plain white t-shirt and sandals. He was very tired.
“You need help,” said Shane’s dad, a quiver in his voice.
“Are you taking me to the police?” asked Shane. “I promise I won’t try to kill you again. I don’t even know why I tried last night. I don’t want to kill you. I probably thought you were someone else. Or maybe I wasn’t trying to kill you at all. Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding.”
“No,” said Shane’s mom. “You were trying to kill us. There was no mistake.” She started to weep softly.
“Please don’t take me to the police,” said Shane. “I don’t want to go to jail. Not even kid jail.”
“We’re not taking you to the police,” said Shane’s dad. “We’re taking you to a private boys’ academy in Multioak. It’s called The Good and Great Boy Academy. It’s designed to help troubled boys work through their problems in a comfortable, stimulating environment.”
A chill ran up Shane’s spine. He put his hand on the suitcase on the seat next to him. It felt cold and rigid.
“How long do I have to stay there?” asked Shane.
“Until you’re better,” said his dad. “Until your mother and I can be certain you won’t try to kill us in our sleep again.”
Shane looked at his hands. They were small and pale, like the boy’s hands they were. They didn’t seem capable of murder. He felt no different than he had the day before, yet today he was a boy who had tried to murder his parents whereas yesterday the worst thing he had ever done was blame an innocent classmate for breaking the classroom overhead projector, which resulted in the classmate being sent to the principal’s office. Even as someone who’d attempted to murder his own parents, the thought of getting his innocent classmate in trouble filled Shane with so much shame that he felt queasy.
Shane wondered what it would take to convince his parents that he wouldn’t try to kill them in their sleep anymore. He wondered if they would ever be capable of that kind of assurance again. He wondered if he was doomed to spend the rest of his life at the Good and Great Boy Academy and, if so, he wondered how that would affect his dream of growing up to raise and sell rare kinds of dogs.
The Good and Great Boy Academy was a big, old house owned and operated by a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor named Mason Krieg. Mr. Krieg had thinning, black hair and a beard trimmed nearly to nothing. His clothes were ill-fitting in a variety of ways: too short, too baggy, too tight, and so on. There were no other adults anywhere on the premises.
There were only two other boys at The Good and Great Boy Academy when Shane arrived. Rupert was eleven, a year older than Shane, and his round face gave the impression of a boy with an angelic singing voice, which may or may not have been the case. Rupert had been at the Academy for three months. His parents had sent him to the Academy because one day, after being told he couldn’t go to an older boy’s slumber party, Rupert had drawn a disturbing picture involving some ancient symbols and imagery that his parents hadn’t been able to comprehend. But when they showed the picture to a family friend with a broad and varied education, he had grown very solemn and the next day Rupert had been hustled off to the Academy, which was conveniently only a few blocks from his home.
The other boy, Drew, was almost exactly Shane’s age and he got along perfectly with his parents. But he viewed everyone else in the world as creatures grotesquely inferior to his parents, a trait that his parents, flattered though they were, viewed as a problem. Drew looked at other people as if they were roaches he’d found in his sock drawer eating the last of his Halloween candy. He’d been at the Academy for three weeks when Shane arrived and he was a sad, bitter little boy with squinty eyes and nothing to say.
The three boys slept in the warm, spacious, dusty attic of The Academy, which Mr. Krieg had transformed into a bunkhouse with enough beds to sleep ten troubled boys, although three was the most he’d ever had at once.
Shane’s first night, lying on a narrow mattress in the darkness of the attic, Rupert asked him why his parents had enrolled him in The Academy. Drew was already snoring softly, having escaped into sleep from this terrible world-without-parents.
“I sleepwalk,” said Shane, immediately wishing he’d gone with an all-out lie.
“What else?” asked Rupert. “Your parents wouldn’t bring you here just for sleepwalking.”
“That’s it,” said Shane. “That really is it. I probably won’t be here long. I’ll get to go home again within the week, probably.”
The next morning, Mr. Krieg assembled the three boys for breakfast in the gazebo in The Academy’s back yard. They stood around a square folding table set for four with a steaming pot of scrambled eggs placed in the center. “Breakfast will always be in the gazebo,” Mr. Krieg said to Shane. “Even in inclement weather. If your parents didn’t pack you a poncho, we will make you one out of heavy-duty trash bags in case of breakfasts during rain storms with high winds.”
“I don’t have a poncho,” said Shane. “I guess I’ll need the trash bags.”
Mr. Krieg sat down at his place at the table and the boys followed suit. As Mr. Krieg dished out the eggs, he said, “So, Drew, Rupert, did Shane tell you why his parents brought him here?”
Shane froze in his seat, his toes curled in his shoes.
“He said it was for sleepwalking,” said Rupert.
Mr. Krieg shook his head. “Not sleepwalking, no. He’s here because, though he claims to have no memory of it, he tried to murder his parents while they slept.”
Rupert and Drew stared at Shane in astonishment. They both leaned back from the table.
“What if he tries to kill us?” asked Drew. It was the first complete sentence Shane had heard him speak, and the first words of any kind that displayed an emotion other than contempt.
“He won’t,” said Mr. Krieg, eating a dainty forkful of eggs.
“But how do you know?” asked Drew.
“I suppose I don’t,” said Mr. Krieg. “But I don’t know for certain that you won’t try to kill us either, Drew. Or that Rupert won’t. Or that I won’t. These are the risks that one takes whether one wants to or not.”
“But isn’t it a question of likelihood?” asked Drew, still eyeing Shane with a look that didn’t rule out the possibility of a preemptive strike.
“Nothing’s likely,” said Mr. Krieg. “And yet things happen all the time.”
“I don’t want to kill any of you,” said Shane. “Or my parents or anyone else.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Mr. Krieg. “Everyone should be eating more eggs and complaining much, much less.”
Over the next few days, Shane came to understand that other than breakfast in the gazebo and sleeping in the attic, there was nothing resembling a regular routine at The Good and Great Boy Academy. Each day’s lessons seemed subject only to Mr. Krieg’s whims. Sometimes the boys performed mind-numbing chores for hours, most of which centered around removing the dust from The Academy that seemed to reappear faster than it could be wiped away. Other times the boys were subjected to a battery of psychological tests that Mr. Krieg had devised without consulting a single expert, a fact that he was proud to repeat over and over as the boys tried to explain why they’d rather be a horseshoe than a nickel or struggled to invent a new way to tie one’s shoes that was demonstrably better than the traditional way while Mr. Krieg took critical notes.
Once, Mr. Krieg took the boys out into the country in his car to look for dinosaur fossils along the muddy banks of the Runoff River. They found no fossils and on the way home, Mr. Krieg explained that there had never been any fossils to find and that, furthermore, they’d been searching on private property without permission, so everyone would be going to bed without dinner, himself included since he’d organized the whole trip. “There are some people who are above rules,” said Mr. Krieg. “But we are not among those people. And we probably won’t meet any, so don’t get your hopes up.”
Shane didn’t understand how any of this was supposed to be fixing whatever was wrong with him. The one good thing was that Rupert, after Shane had gone a few days without trying to kill him, had relaxed and become open and even friendly. He seemed relieved to have someone other than Drew to talk to, who was as petulant and sneering as ever, though his nervousness around Shane had brought the fear that was undoubtedly at the center of his social issues closer to the surface.
On Shane’s fifth night at The Academy, he and Rupert stayed up talking from their beds about the elements of the ideal crime-fighting cartoon for a long time. Then abruptly, Shane found himself in The Academy’s kitchen, heavy raindrops spattering against the window over the sink, and the digital clock on the microwave reading 3:34 a.m. Shane didn’t know why he was in the kitchen, but his first thought was that knives were kept in the kitchen. He hurried back up to the attic on bare, silent feet and slipped back into bed.
Rupert’s whisper came out of the darkness. “Did you get it?”
Shane said nothing for a moment, his heart fluttering. “Get what?”
“The left-over pork chop. Did you eat it already? You told me we’d split it.”
“It was gone,” said Shane. “Mr. Krieg must have eaten it.”
The next day was misty and damp. It was not a great morning to eat in the gazebo, not that it made a difference. When the boys arrived for breakfast, there was a pile of waffles on a Christmas-themed serving tray in the middle of the table and there was another man standing next to Mr. Krieg. The man was a head taller than Mr. Krieg and appeared to be about ten years older, his moustache at least half white. He was wearing a camouflage jacket and scowling down at a solar-powered calculator in his hand.
“This is my uncle Alexander,” said Mr. Krieg as the boys took their places at the breakfast table. “He’s going to be staying with us for a while.”
Uncle Alexander looked up from the calculator and nodded at the boys. “I can relate to you boys,” he said. “Life is full of trouble, correct? And I found some more, so here I am, no home, penniless, begging my weird nephew to take me in.”
“Uncle Alexander will be bunking in the attic with you boys,” said Mr. Krieg. “Since that’s where all the extra beds are.”
“I can’t sleep on floors or couches,” said Uncle Alexander. “Anyway, I’ll see you boys later.” He gave a small wave and exited the gazebo, striding across the lawn and around the side of the house.
“Where’s he going?” asked Rupert.
“That’s not an insightful question,” said Mr. Krieg, and he started piling waffles on the boys’ plates.
The rest of the day was busy. First, Mr. Krieg had the boys take turns reading aloud from books in foreign languages that none of them understood. Then he showed them a video about cutting one’s own hair to save money, which may not have been the video he intended to show, but he did a good job of playing it off like it was. Then it occurred to him that the basement might be flooded, which it was, so he led the boys in a fruitless brainstorming session concerning remedies for flooded basements, which seemed to Shane like something Mr. Krieg should have known by now. The rest of the day went on in this same basic vein until the boys were sent to bed at 10 p.m., at which time they discovered that Uncle Alexander was already in the attic, reclining on one of the beds in track suit pants and his undershirt, reading a ragged, coverless magazine.
He looked up as the boys filed in. “What’s up, boys? Bedtime? None too soon, I say.” He tossed the magazine on the floor. “Last one in bed hits the lights.”
Half an hour later, Uncle Alexander said, “All right, this mattress is the pits. Who’s still awake?”
Shane didn’t want to talk so he said nothing.
“I only hear two snores,” said Uncle Alexander. “Who’s still awake?”
“I am,” said Shane. “It’s Shane.”
“Oh,” said Uncle Alexander. “You’re the one who tried to off his parents, yeah?”
Shane sighed. “So they say. I don’t remember it.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Uncle Alexander. “It’s not uncommon.”
“Not uncommon?” asked Shane. “Killing your parents?”
“No, no,” said Uncle Alexander. “That’s pretty rare. But attempts aren’t uncommon at all.”
“They aren’t? I don’t know anyone else who’s tried.”
“Of course you do,” said Uncle Alexander. “It’s just one of those things no one talks about it.”
“But if so many kids are trying, how come more don’t succeed?” asked Shane.
“Because you’re kids,” said Uncle Alexander. “You’re not strong, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you have all these psychic blocks preventing you from succeeding. Which is a good thing, obviously.”
Shane didn’t know how to feel. He mostly wanted Uncle Alexander to stop talking so he could go to sleep and wake up in the morning right where he’d fallen asleep without any news of night-time trips to the kitchen or attempts at murdering anyone.
“What method did you try?” asked Uncle Alexander. “With your parents?”
“I don’t know,” said Shane. “They wouldn’t tell me.”
“Not poison, I hope,” said Uncle Alexander. “Poison is a woman’s weapon.”
“I don’t know what it was,” said Shane, hoping it wasn’t poison.
“Well, good night,” said Uncle Alexander, and less than a minute later he added his rasping snore to the softer, gentler snores of Rupert and Drew.
Sometime later that night, Shane found himself standing in a fresh hole by the gazebo in the back yard, a dirty shovel in his hands, the moon overhead two-thirds concealed by shreds of clouds. The hole was just under three feet deep and the soft dirt at the bottom was cold and caked around his bare feet. “Oh great,” said Shane, doing everything in his power to assume he had been digging something other than a grave. He hurled the shovel into the bushes, ran his feet under the garden hose, and crept back upstairs to bed.
The next morning was eventful. The day was gray and muggy and when everyone, including Uncle Alexander, had assembled for breakfast in the gazebo, Mr. Krieg said, “Before we eat sausage patties, I need for whoever was out digging in the yard last night to confess.” He pointed to the muddy hole by the gazebo. “Or else I need someone to tell on the person who did it. Either way.”
The boys all looked at each other. Rupert looked worried and Drew looked accusing.
“I bet it was Shane,” said Drew, his voice poisonous. “He wakes me up every night, walking around, coming in and out of the attic, creeping around like he’s so sneaky, but I’m wide awake. He’s not gonna kill me while I - ”
“It was me,” said Uncle Alexander, interrupting Drew. “I dug the hole last night. I was going to bury some old pants, but then I figured why not just throw them in the garbage? Sometimes the most obvious solution is the best.”
Mr. Krieg frowned, his eyebrows tilting in toward each other. “Why didn’t you fill the hole back in? And why did you throw my shovel in the bushes instead of putting it back?”
“I’m impulsive,” said Uncle Alexander, glancing at Shane. He reached into the pocket of his camouflage jacket and withdrew a black pen with which he wrote something on the back of his weathered hand.
“Please don’t dig in the yard or use my tools without asking anymore,” said Mr. Krieg. “And that goes for everyone. Now let’s eat.”
The sausage patties were hot and rubbery.
Twenty minutes after breakfast concluded, just as the boys were about to practice the proper way to hold an infant with dolls Mr. Krieg had made out of water balloons, Shane’s parents showed up out of the blue, walking right into the living room without knocking.
Shane’s mom hugged him while Drew and Rupert looked on, envy almost visibly dripping from Drew’s face.
“Why haven’t you answered any of our calls?” asked Shane’s dad, almost shouting as he pointed at Mr. Krieg. “We’re paying you 150 dollars a week to help our son and you won’t even answer our calls? We want updates on our son’s progress and all we get is silence! What’s wrong with you?”
Mr. Krieg put his hands on his hips and nodded twice. “You signed a paper agreeing to not question my methods as long as Shane is enrolled here.”
“I never signed anything,” said Shane’s dad.
“In that case,” said Mr. Krieg, “we have some paperwork to go over.”
Uncle Alexander, who was reclining without any apparent purpose on a wilted sofa said, “Mason was always difficult, sir. Always liked to do things his own way, even when he was little. My older brother – Mason’s father – used to engage him in battles of will and lose every time.”
“You’re Mr. Krieg’s uncle?” asked Shane’s dad. “Do you help with The Academy?”
“Not really,” said Uncle Alexander. “But your boy is fine. Stop wasting your money and take him home.”
Shane shot Uncle Alexander an alarmed look as his mother finally released him from her embrace, but Uncle Alexander wouldn’t look in his direction.
Shane’s dad turned back to Mr. Krieg. “Is Shane all right? Is he ready to come home?”
“He may have been until you showed up,” said Mr. Krieg. “But who knows how this surprise visit will affect his progress. It may be a very serious setback.”
Uncle Alexander snorted. “Sir, don’t listen to him. Just take your boy and go home. Let him get back to real life. Nothing happening here is bringing him closer to normalcy, I can assure you of that.”
Shane’s mom spoke up, her hand clutching Shane’s shoulder. “Let’s take him home, dear. Please. I’m sure he’s fine. It was just a one-time thing. Who knows why it happened? He’s fine. You’re fine, aren’t you, Shane? You haven’t tried to kill anyone else. You feel normal, right? You remember everything you’ve done since that night, right? And you always know why you did it?”
Shane didn’t say anything. He just looked at his mom, his eyes welling up with tears, and thought about how she was the last person he’d ever want to kill.
“Boys,” said Shane’s dad. He was addressing Rupert and Drew. “You’ve been bunking with Shane. Does he seem all right to you?”
Rupert nodded, but Drew glowered at Shane’s dad and Shane cringed back against his mom, fearing the worst.
“You,” said Drew. “Are a terrible father. You’re nothing like my father. You don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as my father.” He turned to face Shane’s mom. “And you. My mother is so much better than you, that…you also don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as her.”
“Shane,” said Shane’s dad. “Get your bag. We’re leaving.”
“You owe me a 200 dollar early withdrawal fee,” said Mr. Krieg.
“No, I don’t,” said Shane’s dad.
Uncle Alexander met Shane halfway up the steps to the attic as Shane was descending with his suitcase. “Why would I do something I don’t want to do?” asked Shane.
Uncle Alexander let out an unattractive laugh.
“I mean,” said Shane. “What if I really do it?”
Uncle Alexander shrugged. “That’s the risk they took when they had you.”
Shane went downstairs to say goodbye to Rupert, but Mr. Krieg already had him and Drew engaged in combing the newspaper line by line for questionable comma decisions.
The next thing Shane knew, he was riding in the back seat of his parents’ car and his mom was saying, “Shane, that makes perfect sense. I just wish you’d explained it like that before we took you to The Academy and wasted all this time and money.”
Shane’s dad said, “Well, my mind’s at ease, Shane. It would have been nice to know that sooner, but I guess now we can just put it behind us.”
Shane’s mom started to giggle. “When you put it that way, Shane, I can’t believe we were ever so scared. It’s kind of funny, in a way.”
Shane’s dad started to chuckle too. Soon they were both laughing loudly, giddy with relief.
Shane wished he knew what he’d said. He could have used a good laugh.