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The hospital was outside Brighton. It was a sprawling building in some vague Victorian style, all arches and big windows, painted stark white. It was a seaside kind of building, and it reminded him of a massive vanilla ice-cream—one that had sixty-nine private patient rooms and three acres of highly manicured ground, including a path to the sea and a private beach. After being assessed, he was shown to a comfortable room, one without too much character—heavy curtains at the windows, a desk, a television mounted on the wall, everything in calm, muted colours. Judging by the decor, this could have been a roadside inn. There was already a daily schedule in a small plastic frame by his door.

Stephen was used to schedules and found himself studying it and making plans on how to get to each thing most efficiently, before he checked himself and reminded himself that he was in a hospital, not running across a town to try to get to a Latin div on time. The day was leisurely, but there was no room to sit and wallow. Breakfast at nine. A choice after that of either painting or taking a group bike ride (he’d do the bike ride), then one-on-one therapy, then lunch, then a “seaside walk”, then group therapy, then a choice between yoga and tai chi (he’d do the tai chi), then time to write in his journal (which he now had to keep), and dinner. So this was what he would be doing for the rest of June, at least, while everyone else at school finished up. Provisions would be made, he was told, to help him secure his place at Cambridge and finish the Eton year somehow, but he didn’t, he was assured, have to worry about that now.

He found that he wasn’t worried about it at all. His room looked out at the ocean, he hadn’t really minded speaking to the doctor, and the dinner wasn’t that bad. He was here to get better, and the act of coming here was already a huge step.

His parents paid the bills but did not visit. This was absolutely expected and absolutely preferred.

The first few days passed in this way. Unsurprisingly, his doctor wanted to talk about Peter, but Stephen was hesitant. Regina—yes, he would finally discuss Regina. But something about Peter . . . it just wouldn’t settle. He would replay their conversation in his head as he tried to get to sleep. It wasn’t upsetting to think about Peter. On the contrary, it was reassuring. Hallucination or not, Peter was somehow—

His friend?

Fine. So he had an imaginary friend. But the doctor was more and more persistent each day, and each day, Stephen found himself becoming more and more reticent on the subject.

“This figure,” the doctor would ask. “Did it speak or was it silent?”

“I know it wasn’t there,” Stephen would answer.

“But it did speak to you. What did it talk about?”

“About how this was a mistake.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing else,” Stephen would say.

And that was all he would give about Peter—no name, no details of the story he told. Let him remain a shimmering, faint vision in the eyes of the doctors.

After a week of this routine, Stephen found himself sitting in the library one evening, happily reading away when an orderly came in.

“The doctor would like to see you,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong, he just asked if you could pop in for a moment.”

Stephen had just found himself in a comfortable place, reading in the summer evening sunlight. He wasn’t thrilled about getting up to talk again. But he was trained to obey commands, so he got up and followed the orderly, down the now-shaded hall with its soft blue carpeting. It was rare to see a carpeted hospital, and Stephen was reminded that he was basically supported by a cushion of money.

THE BOY IN THE SMOKEWhere stories live. Discover now