The Twisted Thread


By Charlotte Bacon

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When beautiful but aloof Claire Harkness is found dead in her dorm room one spring morning, prestigious Armitage Academy is shaken to its core. Everyone connected to school, and to Claire, finds their lives upended, from the local police detective who has a personal history with the academy, to the various faculty and staff whose lives are immersed in the daily rituals associated with it. Everyone wants to know how Claire died, at whose hands, and more importantly, where the baby that she recently gave birth to is–a baby that almost no one, except her small innermost circle, knew she was carrying. At the center of the investigation is Madeline Christopher, an intern in the English department who is forced to examine the nature of the relationship between the school’s students and the adults meant to guide them. As the case unravels, the dark intricacies of adolescent privilege at a powerful institution are exposed, and both teachers and students emerge as suspects as the novel rushes to its thrilling conclusion. With The Twisted Thread, Charlotte Bacon has crafted a gripping and suspenseful story in the tradition of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one that pulls back the curtain on the lives of the young and privileged.


To my students at MPS:
as they say in Wolof,
this one’s for you.


Five mornings a week, Madeline Christopher jogged through the cool air of Armitage, past tidy clapboard houses, below stately maples, down the quiet, shuttered High Street. It was New England at its most pristine. The town had staved off box stores and cul-de-sacs plowed from cornfields; high taxes and strict zoning had allowed Armitage to relegate the Shop ’n Saves and condos to Greenville, a factory town it bordered to the north. Her route used to include it. After living in one of Cambridge’s seedier neighborhoods, Madeline had felt comfortable with the body shops. Gradually, and not quite consciously, she’d retooled her five miles so that she traveled down elm-shaded lanes, parallel to porches with Doric columns. One stretch of the run now took her past a reservoir where swans nested, white birds on black water, while the wind chapped her face raw well into spring. A big curve guided her around the Quaker graveyard and then up a steady hill and through iron gates to the plush, orderly campus where she had lived for the last nine months. Armitage Academy, where ivy clung to mellowed brick and lawns unfolded like thick, green pelts. Madeline felt always that she was not grand enough to walk on the marble stairs or through the shady buildings. It was preposterous that schools like this still operated, were available to teenagers, of all people, and even more, that she worked at one of them.

For all its appearance of mannered ease, Armitage was a place of ferocious industry. Forty-five minutes was all she had to herself each morning, and it was the only time she could call her own until late that night. Her day was pared into slivers—four minutes to change before track practice, seventeen for lunch. An intern in the English department, she’d had nineteen years of education, acquiring two degrees and no practical experience of any use in the process. But an M.A., a firm handshake, and the willingness to relinquish one’s personal life were apparently all it took to qualify you as a teacher at a boarding school.

Her mother, when she’d seen her at Easter, had placed a thumb between her daughter’s eyes and pressed critically at the skin. At first, Madeline thought Isabelle was engaging in some yogic practice—trying to pry open a tightly shut third eye, for instance, as out of character as such a gesture seemed. Then she said, “You know, they’re doing Botox younger and younger.”

Being responsible for the transmission of American literature to four classes of intelligent, slouching adolescents sometimes struck Madeline as a task more ludicrous than ending dependence on foreign oil. That she was also entrusted with the girls’ JV track team, the literary magazine, and dorm duty twice a week in Portland, a residence known, even to teachers, as Potland, just added to her sense of living in a Sisyphean nightmare. Sisyphean was a word one of her sophomores had used in an essay; Madeline had had to look it up in the dictionary to make sure it had been spelled correctly. It had been. Grindingly repetitive, relating to the futility of labor.

At least it would soon be over. In ten days, she’d be spending the summer on the Cape, in a house her mother had wrested from her second marriage. The plan was to stay and lend a hand to Kate, her older sister, caught in the throes of early motherhood. Rather self-consciously so, thought Madeline, who had seen Kate, her husband, Nick, and their baby, Tadeo, during the recent holiday.

At twenty-eight, Kate had a Ph.D. in architectural history, a husband, a son, a house, and a dog, which seemed like a lot of having for someone so young. What was more disturbing to Madeline was that all these possessions seemed equivalent to her sister. The house equaled the baby; the degree equaled the husband. This wasn’t going to work as a long-term strategy, Madeline sensed. Babies and husbands in general rebelled against being treated like hardwood floors or dissertations, things that could be polished. But for now, Kate’s life looked admirably shiny, well appointed, primed for more and more accomplishment. Kate was a graduate of Armitage.

It was Kate, in fact, she had to thank for having a job here in the first place. Madeline had produced a thesis on Flannery O’Connor and a covertly written collection of short stories—well, at least seven, and that was almost a collection, wasn’t it? By early last spring, she had also amassed a quiver of rejections from the community colleges where she’d hoped to teach near her boyfriend’s medical school. By May, Madeline’s prospects for employment had thinned like her father’s hair after divorcing his third wife. It was Kate who had bluntly captured the situation. “Face it, Madeline, Owen wouldn’t move for you, so why move for him? Put him to the test. Strike out on your own.” She was right, of course. Owen had steadfastly and with no guilt insisted that Duke was the only place he was willing to study medicine. And there he was in North Carolina, dissecting Gary, his cadaver, into thousands of tiny bits. Quite happily. With only occasional calls that had, in truth, become so occasional they were almost nonexistent. The question was, would he break up with her by e-mail or by text?

When Madeline confessed in July that even the slimmest of job leads had evaporated, Kate had wangled an interview for her at the academy. Hired in August, as far as Madeline could tell exclusively on Kate’s recommendation, she’d had a sudden insight into how these schools functioned. Blood mattered. If she was related to Kate, fantastically successful even by Armitage’s distorted standards, she had to be all right. It almost hadn’t been an issue that the hem of her skirt had gapped a little and she had tripped coming up the stairs to meet Porter McLellan, the head. It couldn’t be that bad for a year, they must have thought. They had Mindy Allison’s place to fill; inconvenient of her to be having her fourth child, but there it was. They could make Madeline a last-minute intern, give her a closet to live in, get her to fill unpopular dorm and coaching slots, pay her less than a third what they paid regular teachers, and she’d be grateful in the end to have Armitage on her résumé. A neat trick all around.

The literary magazine—The Turret, for the room where for the past eighty years the faculty adviser and perhaps one competent student had thrown it together—had been published; the track team had one last meet, an invitational. Armitage had conceived of the brilliant system of giving exams early, making the last two weeks of school far less burdensome all around. Now all Madeline had to do was finish teaching, grade several tall stacks of papers, survive the stuffy rituals of graduation and reunion, and she’d be blissfully, completely done. Come September, she had a job tutoring high school kids in Boston and an apartment on Marlborough Street to be shared with three friends from college. She also sustained a misty fantasy of finishing her story collection and achieving some vague form of artistic notoriety, but that was far too embarrassing to admit out loud. Beyond that, she had no idea what the future held.

Thinking about all this—Kate, Owen, her decidedly patchy earning potential—had made Madeline run a bit faster than usual, and before she knew it, her dorm swam into view. Normally, at this time of day, especially on a Monday, Portland, a gambrel-roofed building three stories tall on the far side of the Quad, was dim except for the column of lights that illuminated the central corridor. The girls slept in as late as possible before chapel, unless they were up early to finish a lab, nudge a boyfriend out the door, smoke a cigarette, or do any of the dozens of things forbidden in the Major School Rules. They pursued none of these activities in the light, and at 6:50, Madeline expected only dark windows and hush before the day sprang relentlessly forward.

But Portland was ablaze. Every pane shone. An ambulance and two police cruisers, their red, white, and blue lights pulsing irregularly, pasted the faces of the girls clustered at the door with fleeting, transparent tattoos. Madeline discovered herself bolting past the statue of James Armitage, a gunpowder merchant who’d founded the academy in 1820 for the “betterment of boys,” and straight toward the students. Strange to have had such ambivalent feelings about them so much of the year and find suddenly that she considered herself responsible for their welfare.

Someone’s dead, Madeline thought, and panic jolted through her. She hated this sensation, the knowledge, only half-admitted most of the time, that the world could crack wide at any moment, and that you would never, despite wit, fiscal prudence, or luck, be entirely prepared for what might happen next. Who was it? Maybe Harvey Fuller had keeled over after forty years of teaching biology and almost as many living in the same apartment at the back of Portland. Old enough to have known Darwin, not only teach his theories. But it wasn’t Harvey. There he was, spry in a bathrobe of Black Watch, as he spoke to a policeman. Looking, Madeline thought incongruously, as leathery as those oceangoing lizards the naturalist had studied in the Galápagos.

“You’re finally back, Madeline. No one knew where you were,” Grace Peters scolded, intercepting her before she could reach the terrified girls. And that was the word, Madeline realized: they were terrified, tearstained and quaking. Grace, the dorm head, glanced at Madeline’s damp T-shirt and shorts, the untied lace of one of her sneakers. Even in the midst of a crisis, Grace, a classics teacher, had managed to find an unwrinkled pair of brown slacks and a neat gray cardigan. She was known to give pop quizzes with breathtaking regularity. Her students regularly scored 5s on AP exams. Madeline couldn’t believe she was thinking about iguanas and Grace’s reputation, but it was the way the mind worked when frightened, wasn’t it? Forming and clinging to ridiculous impressions when least necessary.

“What’s going on?” Madeline asked. She could barely breathe.

“Claire Harkness is dead,” Grace said, and Madeline saw that Grace was actually as gray as her sweater.

The worst thing possible, every teacher’s private horror. A student dying on their watch. And why Claire? Madeline had taught her in Contemporary World Literature the first semester, and the girl’s crystalline beauty and complete disdain for the adults around her had awed her. She hadn’t quite realized kids like Claire actually existed, though Kate ought to have prepared her. At seventeen, Claire had a composure that Madeline couldn’t imagine possessing at fifty, even if her hair had managed at last to stay straight. Claire’s last paper—well argued, neatly phrased, but somehow bloodless—had compared ineffectual parents in the stories of Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro. Claire had not been a person whose passion for life bubbled through her, but the girl had a certain fierceness that made the thought of her dead almost impossible to fathom. And how? Suicide seemed unlikely, but even so, Madeline imagined rope, a bottle of pills. The school counselor, Nina Garcia-Jones, had devoted half a day during new teacher orientation to Warning Signs and Appropriate Responses. Madeline tried to remember when she had last seen Claire and couldn’t. “What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Grace said, looking over at the group of girls still huddled in the doorway. Sally Jansen had started to scream that Claire was on the floor and couldn’t be woken up. That was all, so far. Grace’s phone chirped, and she leaned in to answer it.

Madeline didn’t know what to do. Faculty members and students had begun to stream from their dorms to investigate the unseemly commotion with which Portland had started the week. Grace was still on the phone. Was she talking to the police? Claire’s parents? What a terrible job that would be. Wouldn’t Porter take care of that? Madeline began to walk toward the girls and tripped on her shoelace. She leaned down to tie it, and memories of Claire scrambled around her mind. Her gold hair had flowed in even waves past her shoulders, and on that hair alone, Ned Madison, the dean for college admission, had snorted, she could have gotten into paradise, much less Harvard. He’d had four beers at the welcome picnic when he said it, but it was probably true. That she was a lithe, instinctive athlete, captain of lacrosse, a more than competent student, and a volunteer at the Greenville animal shelter combined to create an irresistible package for most schools. Add to that what was known as a “heavy leg,” four generations of relatives who’d gone and contributed mightily to Harvard, and Claire had been a shoo-in.

But in what counted as a rebellious move only at Armitage, Claire had chosen to go to Yale. She’d gotten in early and had done approximately nothing since then in most of her classes. She was close to failing calculus, Alice Grassley had said to Madeline at a faculty meeting. “And while I wouldn’t call her a genius, behind that perfect nose she’s no dummy,” Alice added. Far worse from most people’s perspectives, the girl had refused to go out for lacrosse during this, her last year at Armitage. There had been hand-wringing about it at the lunch table.

Grace snapped her phone closed. Madeline stood up, shivering. One of the girls huddled at the doorway started to wail. It was Sally Jansen, a reedy, neurotic senior bound for Skidmore. Others gathered round and tried to hush her. “It shouldn’t have happened!” Sally was screaming.

“What’s she talking about?” Madeline asked. “What’s Sally saying?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Porter, handsome and rugged in a groomed, patrician way. All he was doing was talking to a man in a suit, but even from this distance, Porter gave off a palpable impression that he could handle the job before him. He was almost universally considered competent. Even with her limited exposure to places like this, Madeline knew how rare it was to find someone as respected as he was, especially in an environment where stakes were so small and entitlements so large. Madeline always had a hard time calling him by his first name.

Sally was screaming louder now. “She shouldn’t have died. It shouldn’t have happened!” Porter appeared to see the girl for the first time. At almost the same moment, he glimpsed Madeline and motioned with his hand that she was to go and deal with Sally. He so rarely noticed her, his brief gesture had the weight of a touch. Just then, Sally broke free and dashed inside the dorm. Madeline felt her own knees unlock as she went to do Porter’s bidding. She tore through the door, past police and students, and up the stairs, following the sound of Sally’s quick feet.

Claire had been a prefect, and as such had scored herself a large single with an attached bathroom. Sally was lunging toward Claire’s room, but two uniformed officers pinned her firmly by the arms. “Slow down, sweetheart,” said the older one. “Take it easy,” said the other as Sally collapsed in the hallway. The cops were used to Armitage students. These men, large, local, unimpressed with privilege, knew exactly how to handle kids like Sally Jansen, and they frequently did when the more hapless were caught smoking pot in the graveyard or trying to buy liquor in Greenville’s package stores.

Madeline panted up the last stairs and went toward the trembling girl. As she did, she couldn’t help but glance inside the room, known in the dorm as Claire’s Lair. Drawers were open, and expensive clothes were flung everywhere on the dhurrie rugs that she’d used to mask the tile. Her desk was piled with books and binders. A bulletin board was covered with snapshots and Post-its and her acceptance letter from Yale. Madeline could see the school’s name from where she stood.

The room of a spoiled girl. A girl who had openly considered herself superior to others and been admired by her peers for her beauty and confidence. A girl whose social connections intimidated most teachers and made stark the gap between the origins of the students and the adults meant to guide them. But none of that had protected her from dying. All of a sudden, Madeline spied Claire, her almost naked body not even six feet away, sprawled on the floor near the desk chair. She was on her back, head tilted to the side. No wound or mark was visible from here; she looked almost as if she were sleeping, but there was no mistaking the absolute lack of life in the angle at which her neck was bent and in the pallor of her skin. The policemen moved protectively in front of the door but hadn’t closed it yet, unwilling apparently to alter the scene before photographers arrived. Everything had to be frozen as it had been found. Even Madeline knew that. Still, the cops’ wide legs couldn’t block her view entirely.

Holding Sally to her chest, trying to still the girl, she couldn’t help but stare. It struck her how little she had been around the dead. Americans kept death at arm’s length, as if it were a country they would never visit. Yet even in places where mortality was less crudely separated from life, people would be stunned at the extinction of the young and lovely. No one could make Claire Harkness on the floor, her skin the color of a candle, turn into something normal. Sally kept sobbing, Madeline kept holding her. And then she realized something else that was not normal about Claire. It was her breasts. They were full, and rigid with veins, their tips wide, rosy caps. Something about them made her think of Kate. Her sister had been complaining about her newly huge nipples and had to be reassured by several doctors that they would eventually revert to small, delicate pinkness. She had nursed because it was what was best for Tadeo, she said, but after six months, that was it. She needed her body back. At the tip of each of Claire’s breasts was a grayish pearl of what could only be milk. One of the officers had had enough of Sally, the crying, and Madeline’s sweaty presence and was trying with gentle insistence to get them going. “Miss, take the young lady downstairs now, please,” he said.

But Madeline, arms still wrapped around Sally, was rooted to the floor. “No, no, that’s not possible. Sally, did Claire just have a baby?” Madeline said sharply, still holding the girl, but lifting her chin so she could stare into the narrow face. “Where’s the baby?” Madeline found that she was almost shaking Sally’s bony shoulders. Abruptly, a number of details came into focus: Claire’s refusal to participate in sports this spring, her low grades, her sickly color the last week, the eerie buzz that had run through the dorm this weekend that Madeline had thought was only end-of-the-year jitters. A baby. And none of the community’s adults had even known she was pregnant. Or had they? Madeline’s stomach felt as if a stone had landed in it. A girl she’d supervised and taught, and she hadn’t noticed. How could she have missed something so obvious? How could she have been so stupid?

Sally, a damp weight, said brokenly, “Miss Christopher, she wouldn’t let us tell anyone. She wanted to keep it a secret. She made us promise.”

“Sally,” Madeline said, more steel in her voice than she’d known she possessed, “I’m going to ask you again. Where is the baby?”

Sally shook her head and could not speak. “I don’t know,” she finally whispered. “He’s gone. When I found her this morning, we looked everywhere, but he’s gone. Someone took all his blankets and the diapers. Someone took him. I just can’t believe he’s gone.” She burst into ragged tears again and threw herself on Madeline.

The officers’ watchfulness had thickened. The taller murmured into his radio. Almost instantly, Madeline heard the scrape of men’s shoes on the stairs. She held Sally close. She wanted to offer some reassurance, to blot away the girl’s grief. She understood now why Sally had shouted on the steps and why the girls had seemed not just saddened but so scared. She started to ease Sally to her feet, but Madeline’s mind was charging forward. Claire might have given birth in that room. Where was her child? Sally kept sobbing. Police in uniforms, in suits came swarming up the stairs. One was ordered to take Madeline and Sally downstairs, now, and as he leaned in to help them, Madeline saw that his face was almost as young as those of her students. Sally tottered back to the first floor, and Madeline followed, her hand on the girl’s shoulder. As they moved, light poured in through the high windows and dazzled the gold braid on the officer’s cap. Above them, radios crackled, cell phones shrilled, men barked into them, voices taut.

The sun spread in hot bands through the stairwell, illuminating long threads of dust floating through the air. It was going to be a beautiful day, green, warm, rich with spring’s fullness. With a suddenness that made Sally, the silent officer, and Madeline all jump, the chapel bells began to peal.


Fred Naylor was sitting next to Alice Grassley and doctoring his dining hall coffee with a carefully engineered combination of cream and raw sugar. A miniature success with which to start the morning. It was just 6:45, and peace reigned in the elegantly proportioned room. He hadn’t realized how much he savored the ritual until Rob Barlow, the dean of students, strode in, saw them both, and came over to shatter the day. Rob planted his hands on their table and said, with a rough attempt at lowered volume, “Tragic news. Claire Harkness is dead. We’re meeting at seven fifteen in the Study.”

Fred and Alice happened to eat breakfast at the same early hour, and they’d developed a habit of sitting next to each other and trading sections of the newspaper. It was a friendship of sorts, an unexpected one. Alice was at least sixty, bony, exacting, the keeper of minutes at faculty meetings, and best known for the ruthless speed with which she graded calculus exams. Fred was twenty-nine, the painting teacher and boys’ soccer coach, and had cultivated a professionally relaxed attitude about almost everything. Nonetheless, he and Alice had grown used to talking companionably together each morning in the hushed, almost empty dining hall, sports pages spread over the narrow table. They were both citizens of what was now called Red Sox Nation, but Alice didn’t like that name. “Die-hard fan will do nicely,” she said. When Rob approached them, they were about to tuck into a discussion of last night’s loss to Baltimore, a five-run lead blown in the ninth inning, a kind of mishap specific to the Sox. But Rob’s news destroyed everything. Fred dropped the packet of sugar. Alice’s tea spilled an amber river through her eggs. “Do the students know?” she asked Rob. Her face was as pale as the chalk she still insisted on using. Everyone else had long ago switched to whiteboards.

“A few,” said Rob. “The ones in the dorm, mostly. Sarah’s meeting with them now.” Sarah Talmadge was the assistant head: professional, crisp, smart. Exactly the right person to calm a dorm full of panic-stricken girls. Rob was a former history teacher and had a bristling head of brown hair and a square set of shoulders he’d used to great effect as a hockey player and coach. A good person to convey bad news to adults, because he’d be brisk about it, but the wrong choice for kids. Porter McLellan, once again, had made the right decision. Rob stalked off to alert the next faculty member he’d been slated to tell. No doubt he was working from a carefully denoted list about who was contacting whom. Porter was remarkably thorough. It was 6:50. Fred and Alice had a few minutes to gather themselves before they had to leave.

He glanced at the group of Korean kids sitting in the corner where they chatted every morning. Breakfast was an optional meal at Armitage, and only the most dedicated of students got up this early. Jung Lee, a handsome senior, was laughing loudly at something Maya Kim had said. They had no idea about Claire, and Fred wasn’t going to tell them. He was desolate at the thought that he would never feel the same about these mornings in Alice’s tactful, pleasant company reliving the dramas of their baseball team as these serious children ate pancakes.

Alice was wiping her forehead with a napkin. “Thirty-six years,” she said, staring out the bay window through which they could see a broad green bank leading down to the Bluestone River. This Saturday, Armitage was supposed to host a rowing regatta that Fred knew would now be canceled.

“Thirty-six,” Alice said again. “I’ve been here thirty-six years, and in that time only three other students have died. Alex Schwartz, in a car accident. Louisa Harper, of leukemia. One other, in a climbing accident. Kids just don’t die here. But this is different. I know this is different, Fred.”

Later, Fred would not quite remember how he and Alice made it to the meeting, but he did know that he offered her his arm and was surprised to realize she needed his support. Alice was wrong. Another Armitage boy had died here, but it was before her tenure and almost everyone had forgotten about him.

They took their seats in the Study, a mock Gothic, wood-paneled room off the main hall of Nicholson House, where the deans and Porter hatched administrative strategies on the first floor. The language lab lurked moldily in the basement, and the college counselors had spread themselves out for their embattled work across the second. The Study featured stained-glass panels of Pre-Raphaelite maidens and vaguely Arthurian knights posed among lilies. In the moony glow of these long-haired figures, almost seventy faculty members gathered each week to discuss everything from the curriculum to parents’ weekend, benefits packages to student morale. At a regular meeting, a buzz of chipper, sociable talk hummed through the room. This morning, however, teachers folded themselves into their usual seats and refused to meet one another’s eyes. It was so hushed Fred could hear a twittering flock of birds in the lilac bush that grew beyond the window.

Then Madeline Christopher rushed in. Fred raised his hand and waved her over. Her disheveled, dark brown hair distinguished her from many of the other teachers and most of the students. One of the first things Madeline had said to him, rather crossly, was “Blondes. Working here’s like being trapped in some preppy, unfishy version of Iceland.” What had made Fred laugh was that she’d blushed unevenly and gulped “Sorry!” the moment she looked up at him and remembered his own tousled golden curls.


On Sale
Jun 14, 2011
Page Count
384 pages
Hachette Books

Charlotte Bacon

About the Author

Charlotte Bacon graduated from Harvard University and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. Her published books include A Private State, Lost Geography, There Is Room for You and Split Estate. Her debut collection of stories, A Private State, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction in 1997.

Learn more about this author