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You can tell when your parents dislike you—when they are horrified by the way you eat, at your bodily fluids, at the noises you make and the way you play. You know you perpetually give them a headache or make them vanish into another room and leave you with the housekeeper or each other or the dog, whatever is handy.

Another way you can tell is when it is the last day of prep school, and they forget to come and get you and go on holiday to Barbados instead.

This is how Stephen Dene finally figured it out. He had suspected it for years, but it was just a vague, uneasy feeling. This was proof—hard, solid proof. If he had been in a courtroom drama, this was the kind of thing the Crown could have produced in the end with a major flourish.

“And do you deny, that on Friday, the 15th of May, you left your thirteen-year-old son, Stephen Dene, sitting on the front steps of Chatwick House at St. George’s School, looking like a total tit? Do you deny not answering your phones because you were at the hotel spa the entire day being wrapped in seaweed or ginger or some other pore-opening swill while your son was left to rot?”

And his parents would be sitting in the witness box looking tanned and shamed. The jury would scowl at them. The judge would look down from the bench and bore holes into the tops of their well-groomed heads.

Stephen watched a lot of crime shows and police dramas, so this is where his mind went in times of stress. He often fantasied about becoming a police officer. He liked the idea of chasing down criminals and helping people who were hurt. It was a practical job, one that made sense. He asked his father about it once.

“Don’t be stupid,” his father replied. “We’re not sending you to these kinds of schools to become a plod.”

No. Apparently, they sent him to schools like this so he could sit alone on his trunk in the mid-May sunshine, smelling the first bloom of the summer, watching car after car after car leave the school. And as the numbers grew smaller, the questioning looks he got from those leaving became more questioning. What was wrong with Dene? Where was his family? The numbers dwindled. It was just him and Anderson and Dex. Dex never even looked up from the video game he was playing when he got into his parents’ car. Anderson tried to talk to him about football, and then they both got bored and anxious and stared down the drive, waiting to see which car would turn the green and shady corner first. When it was Anderson’s, and when Anderson’s parents emerged frantically talking about car trouble and apologizing and hugging him—that’s when Stephen felt something in him go into freefall.

His parents did not have car trouble. Of that, he was reasonably certain. He reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone to text his sister.

They forgot to get me.

The replies came quickly, one on top of the other.


You’re still there???

I’ll kill them.

U ok?

Don’t worry.

Then she sent a picture of herself making a rageful face.

When everyone else was gone, and the school grounds were creepily quiet except for the sound of birds screaming away in the trees, the headmaster’s wife took Stephen inside to their private residence. She gave him a plate of cold chicken and packaged Waitrose coleslaw on a tray. Then the headmaster and his wife went into the kitchen and spoke behind a closed door, but he could hear more or less every word.

“Their housekeeper is coming,” he heard the headmaster say.

 “There’s always one,” his wife said. She was trying, and failing, to keep her voice low. “It’s always so sad. I wonder why these people have children? And such a shame it’s Dene. He’s a lovely boy. So smart. Going to Eton. And . . .”

THE BOY IN THE SMOKEWhere stories live. Discover now