There are worse places an Ivy Leaguer, desperate to restore a tattered academic career, can pass the mist-shrouded New England autumn of his senior year. There is serenity on the secluded fourth floor of the cavernous stone dormitory, marred only by the occasional echoed footfall on the stairs of muffled voice in the corridor. The atmosphere is ripe for quiet study--until it begins...
Floorboards creak in seemingly deserted hallways. Phantom whispers stir the silence. Invisible eyes seems to lurk, watching. At last, an enigmatic stranger emerges from the shadows, claiming to be a fellow student. But nobody else can see or hear the presence that seeps in like fog rolling off the Charles River. Nobody else can sense, with growing dread, the terrible truth...
Decades have passed since the murky accident that claimed the lives of three Adams House residents. But somebody wants to relive--and punish--the sins of the past. Somebody is preying on the dorm's current occupants, even as one of their peers descends slowly into a surreal world where madness meets mayhem; where nothing is certain but the chilling suspicion that what has happened before can--and must--happen once again...
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About the Author
Sean Desmond graduated from Harvard College in 1995 and is a former resident of Adams House. He now lives in New York City. Abandon is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
(Previously Published as Adams Fall.)
By Sean Desmond
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Sean K. Desmond
All rights reserved.
I remember the year began strangely.
I had recently finished moving back into Adams House when there was a blackout through the entire Boston area. That night I went up to the roof and sat on the ledge overlooking the reticent, dark city. The summer was dying down to a breeze. I could make out the shadows of the city's skyline, but as night settled in and fewer cars lighted the streets, the darkness grew and grew. I can picture that darkness from the room I am in now. In the darkness I sleep and feed.
It was my senior year of college. A year that was supposed to be full of new experiences — the beginning of the rest of my life. This was what those years of hard work and study were for. This was when it all paid off and something right before graduation showed you the light. But instead I got caught under some fateful wheel and my life became a repeat of tired history.
On the night of the blackout the headaches started. They weren't sharp migraines, but a dull, constant pressure that muddled my memory of simple details. I had trouble concentrating and looking past the face value of any given day. Many people said I was sick, and I can understand that. My roommate, Billy, was sick. He committed suicide. But he was also right — whether he knew it or not.
As I sat there on the rooftop and gazed over the thousands of silent buildings huddled in the darkness, I was beginning to see things in a new way. It takes so much anger in a person to see this way. It's a kind of vision that cannot be blinded or diminished — it seems clearer in the dark, but is undisturbed by the light. Everything that night was heightened in its nervousness — as if the city were afraid and waiting cautiously for the sun. Maybe the automatic coffeemaker and alarm clock radio wouldn't come on, but the sun would soon shine and smile. The light of day helps us do this, that, and the next thing. In the light of day we begin again; that's when we fix and resolve. I can't see the sun rise now but I can tell from activity in the hall when it's daytime. I can hear the ignorant confidence in their steps. Tasks being set out and finished as if life were nothing more than a checklist. All this progress and order because of the sun.
* * *
That semester, some memory mingled with the present, I won't deny that. Caught in some demented form of déjà vu, I was ready to break forward, and that house, that whole damn school, kept me waltzing in the past. What I can't seem to reconcile is the hold over events he had, and the continual fog I was walking around in. It was like going to a party, having a few beers, and cresting on that first wave of mild drunkenness. The kind of drunk where you're more than happy to hear yourself talk. The kind of drunk when you're so witty and thoughtful that you must have everyone's ear. Then you go to the bathroom and catch yourself in the mirror. Staring into the reflection, you have no idea who that person really is. You don't even recognize yourself on the outside, never mind all the motives and thoughtless reasons that lurk behind the eyes. How does that person in the mirror make any sense, let alone function? The thought, the reflection, is not even sobering. It just drifts vaguely on until you finally come to terms with this: yeah, you're fooling no one, except maybe yourself.
* * *
There was a moment that semester which speaks to everything that happened. It was a few months after the blackout. Maeve had come into and out of my life and I was up on the roof again in a foolish, maudlin vigil for her. You can't begin to understand how tired I was at this point. I had been up on that roof every night for over two weeks — that's how I know what happened. I was patient and waited. And on the night in question as they say, he shows up on the roof. Not Billy, but my dark angel. I can't tell you much about him now. You wouldn't believe me. It takes a little time and circumstance to explain the situation.
At any rate, the two of us get to chatting. I was very angry about what had happened to Maeve. He preyed on this, which confounded me further. The longer we talked, the less it all explained.
That's until I realized my own astonishing self. In the midst of obligations, I had lost a sense of purpose. I was too busy impressing others. I had forgotten for whom all the schooling was intended. In order to face him, I had to know myself. You must understand that all these problems begin inside a person. They can grow there for years and years in the darkness of a chided, unused heart. And the College, with its cruel history, had much to do with this blossoming of sorts. Once I realized what I was, then I understood him. You could even say this is his story and I've corrupted it.
And all the blood spilt for it. For what? The truth? An answer? No, just me. Just me and the useless report of what happened.
Of this, I am certain as the sunrise and in no need of your help. When night comes, I go to my bed like a grave.CHAPTER 2
This story began a couple of weeks before Halloween. I came down to the dining hall to find Rosie on a Monday morning and there were the results of the first wave of midterms on page one of the College paper. Karen Henry, Sidwell Friends, College class of '95, and daughter of Senator Albert Henry, had thrown herself off Weeks Bridge into the near-frozen Charles River. She was found downstream near the Boston University boathouse. A women's crew coach saw her first and dragged the body into her scull. Friends hadn't seen Karen over the past few days and had assumed she was cramming for midterms.
"That makes three from our class and four this year," Rosie sniffed and opened her notebook.
I sat down. Rosie didn't say hello. Her friends Susan and Happy were sitting across from me. Susan toyed with the last bits of flotsam in her cereal. Happy breezed through the crossword, only announcing the clues she knew the answers to immediately. I admit I never liked either of them. What does it matter at this point? To me, they embodied the irritating self-absorbed qualities I chose to ignore in Rosie. On a good day, they were simply argumentative. On a bad day, they were harpies with a deluded sense of entitlement. I put up with them because they posed no real threat and I didn't need to put added pressure on my relationship with Rosie.
None of us at the table that morning was terribly upset. None of us knew the senator's daughter that well. We were a little jaded by suicide, you could say. In fact, suicide was how I ended up Rosie's boyfriend. We had known each other for some time before we started going out. That's because Rosie was dating my freshman roommate, Billy. Billy was a normal guy by the College's warped standards — smart, driven all his life to be on top, and studying economics to keep his piles of money straight later in life. Billy was a fine roommate; he was neat, easy to talk to, never loud nor very drunk.
Billy hanged himself from the shower curtain rod April of our freshman year. Rosie and I had been sleeping together for about a month prior to Billy's suicide. It's not easy to explain how that started. We shared a history requirement second semester and we'd meet in the library reading room to study together. Rosie really did love Billy then. So I don't know. I badly wanted to be with someone, and she knew it. But she didn't use me either. You really can't judge someone by the mistakes they make that first year of college. You're not even a real person then, you're more a glob of adolescence pinned on its own awkwardness.
Up to the day he committed suicide, we were certain Billy didn't have the faintest idea of what was going on. But then they found the note he left, which quoted an obscure biblical passage about sinners and fools. It also went through the normal laundry list of problems — pressures to succeed, overwhelmed with work, exams looming — but that Bible verse and a constant restating that he was seeing things "clearly for what they were" hit close to home. Billy killed himself on a Saturday night. Timing things, it seemed, so Rosie would find him first.
His words in the suicide note were both pitifully melodramatic and venomously specific. The strange thing was that he didn't seem to blame himself. What I remember about him the days before was happy and pain-free. I guess he had made his mind up on the subject and felt the relief of knowing what he was going to do. It was as if he knew himself to be healthy and thought everyone else was sick. It all went to prove that people at that school could be screwing you over and guessing such was as sure as knowing so. Rosie was sent home that semester and given straight A's. I was moved out of the room and given a prescription for Prozac.
In a weird way, Billy's suicide brought Rosie and me closer together. We were the only two people who may have known the motive for his suicide, and that secret bound us together. We waited for a year after Billy's death before going out in public together. Nonetheless, rumors were floating around and I could tell people talked about us. Walking through the dining hall I caught looks and brows that had the gears of suspicion raising them. Billy's death was long forgotten, but people still cast aspersions on us. What Billy might or might not have known became overshadowed by what others inferred.
So the death of Karen Henry was not going to stir what all of us at that table had tried to bury for three years. The rest was chalked up to being of a certain status and social profile. Karen Henry was probably a social bee stung by the vituperations of her fellow wasps. It was a cold, aloof calculation, but what emotional investment is expected for silver spoons and Barbie dolls? How hard could that life be, and how much sympathy could we have for such tragedy?
"So was her boyfriend sleeping around on her?" I asked, turning the page. Rosie paused ever so slightly, but did not look up at me.
"She was in my section for conflict resolution," Happy said. "Let's just say she wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer."
Happy wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. She was still pissed that someone had stolen all her thesis notes from her room the first week of the semester. She had spent the whole summer attending some trial of a serial killer in Oregon and without her notes was back to square one. I wasn't surprised it had happened. Happy was a misnomer. Rosie, Susan, and I were what was left of her so-called friends. Count the ex-boyfriends, the people she shouted at drunk while at parties, and then the miserable folk who shared tutorials with her and you had a pretty long list of suspects.
We were all seniors at the College, which was the source, channel, and delta of our endless social critique. As one might expect, we'd spent our whole lives kissing ass to get there and a lot of overachieving neuroses had built up along the way. I remember coming home from third grade with a test I got a ninety -five on, and my father, first thing, asked me what happened to the other five points. That sort of thing instilled success, but with a sharkish attitude I clearly recognized in all of my fellow classmates.
And by the time you're a senior at the College you've met everyone better and smarter than you. Then it's all about discovering the chinks in each other's armor. That is how you can come to the opinion that your average College class of sixteen hundred students is not the smartest sixteen hundred adolescents on earth, but the sixteen hundred sycophants and psychopaths who best knew how to fill out the application. Among the snobs and the nerds, the field of competition was strewn with selfishness and bullshit. The result was a disgusting, incendiary admixture of achievement and insecurity.
* * *
I lived in Adams House, B-entry. It's the stone monster that hulks over the junction of Bow and Arrow Streets. A and B entries, also known as Westmorely Court, were built around the turn of the last century. Some years ago, the dean of the College was so fed up with his upperclassmen that he kicked them out of the Yard into houses down by the Charles. Westmorely Court was one of the posher places to dwell and eventually became part of the Gold Coast — a series of snooty residences and final clubs running along Mount Auburn Street.
Adams is the closest house to the Yard and farthest from the Charles. Unlike the Georgian red bricks which make up ninety percent of the campus, Adams runs a gamut of eccentric architectural styles. B-entry in particular has a severe, Gothic quality to it. The floors are checkered with black and white marble tiles that recede into shadowy asymptotes which don't quite seem to reach their vanishing point. The walls are oak-paneled and have been stained into black. The dark strength of the hall is completed by a huge wrought-iron banister and slab stairway that rises to capacious landings on each of the three upper floors. Despite the size of the hallways, the combined wattage of the fluorescent lights throughout the entry is less than that of a reading lamp.
Franklin Roosevelt lived in B-16, the last room on the left, first floor. His room is fairly commonplace aside from the bright, high ceilings and ornate carvings in the oaken mantelpiece. The bathroom from his day is still intact — an old-fashioned toilet with the overhead box and rope plunger and a giant porcelain lion's-paw tub with a small stepladder rising to its lip. People will tell you that he had the special bathroom for his polio, but Roosevelt didn't come down with the disease until twenty years after college.
Across the hall and halfway down from his room is the door to the Adams House pool. The decor and detailing of the pool room seem ancient and heavy, like a miniature version of the Baths of Caracalla. The pool is completely indoors and its tiled bottom is a wild mosaic of zoomorphs and floral curlicues.
For decades Adams House was costly to live in and therefore all the more exclusive and conservative. After World War II, housing costs were reined in for scholarship kids and young men on the GI Bill, and Adams, while desperately clinging to its haughtiness and tradition, became more and more the arts house on campus. Black turtlenecks replaced dinner jackets in the dining hall. The pool was closed after too many bacchanals, or so the freshmen are told before they move down from the Yard. Adams still attracts the hipster set, but these days that equals a bunch of suburban kids reveling in sexual ambiguity. The range of habits and activities is narrow and annoying — discussion of the "other," which rapper has the most cred, which TV shows would Friedan and de Beauvoir watch, where's the subculture, why no movements, deconstructing X, and when all else fails, pledge allegiance to something ironic and low-fi.
I lived on the fourth floor, B-46, in a fairly spacious single. There were few singles available in the house and I considered myself lucky. The front door to B-46 opens onto a short hallway with the bathroom and shower to the left, the closet straight ahead, and the main room to the right. The ceilings are about fifteen feet high. The main room is a simple square — the bed in one corner, and the desk by a pleasant set of French doors that open onto a small balcony which was perfect for smoking. A dresser, bookshelves, and noisy radiator take up the rest of the space.
It was a haul up all those stairs, but the fourth floor was more quiet and secluded than the rest of the house. And that's exactly why I took it. I was an English major with a thesis to write. My thesis was on Shakespeare, his problem plays, and the development of his middle style. It sounds like crap, but Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and Hamlet were in vogue with the department and my adviser. I admit, it was a bit of a cop-out — a thesis on Shakespeare — but I knew my way around the plays and I had much to do senior year in addition to my thesis.
Rosie, my girlfriend, lived on the second floor of B-entry in a triple with Susan and Happy. Rosie was a good, honest girl, and despite all our latter-day problems, I truly loved her. She was your typical Irish lass — fair skin, dark brown hair, and clear blue eyes. We got along well for a long time, and the simple why analysis would be that we were opposites. She was a realist and I was a failing romantic. She was an economics major ready for the business world. I loathed responsibility if it didn't match my criteria for classic ennoblement. She was conversational, outgoing, and aggressive. I tried to feign mystery and intelligence with withdrawal and moodiness. But we were attracted to each other in this way — we added virtue for knowing the faults of the other. College was an academic trial and emotionally draining for us both and we relied heavily on each other. I cared for her deeply.
But senior year was exhausting, and the cracks began to show. Despite three years of a relationship, we had little in common and she became too serious for my tastes. We fought more and more, but neither of us discussed breaking it off. I was the one who started it; I was the one losing a grip on the relationship. She was so smart and attractive and I admit to being nervous and a headcase. She had changed utterly and so had I. But I knew her before things got to be a mess and she was different. Trying to figure out college was a lot easier with Rosie around, but somewhere along the line I didn't need her help anymore. Nonetheless I couldn't end it or free myself up somehow. It was my first long-term relationship — I had met her family, she wore my ring, that sort of commitment.
Excerpted from Abandon by Sean Desmond. Copyright © 2000 Sean K. Desmond. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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