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They’re invisible ties that bind us to others—to the dead as well as the living. They’re promises we’ve murmured but whose echo we don’t hear, silent fidelities. They’re contracts we make, mostly with ourselves, passwords acknowledged though unheard, debts we harbor in the folds of our memories.
They’re the rules of childhood dormant within our bodies, the values in whose name we stand up straight, the foundations that enable us to resist, the illegible principles that eat away at us and confine us. Our wings and our fetters.
They’re the springboards from which our strength takes flight and the trenches in which we bury our dreams.
I thought the kid was being abused. I had this thought very quickly, maybe not in the first few days, but not long after the school year began. There was something about the way he acted, how he looked away. I recognize that. I know it by heart. A way of blending into the background, of letting the light pass through you. Except with me that doesn’t work. I was hit when I was a child and I hid the marks right to the end, so I’m not taken in. I say “the kid” because really you should see boys at that age, with their hair as fine as girls’, their high, fluting voices and the sense of uncertainty that clings to their movements. You should see them look amazed with their eyes wide as saucers, or getting told off with their hands clasped tight behind their backs, their lips quivering, as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. And yet there’s no doubt that this is the age when they start to do really stupid things.
A few weeks into the new school year I requested an appointment with the principal about Théo Lubin. I had to go through it a few times. No, there were no marks and he hadn’t confided in me. It was something to do with his attitude, as though he was closed up, a particular way of avoiding attention. Mr. Nemours laughed at first: avoiding attention? Wasn’t that true of half the class? Yes, of course I knew what he meant: the way they have of shrinking in their seats to avoid being asked a question, of rummaging in their bags or suddenly becoming absorbed in looking at their desks as if it were a matter of life or death. I can recognize that sort without even needing to look up. But this was completely different. I asked what we knew about the student and his family. We should be able to find some information in the file, comments, a previous warning sign. The principal carefully went through the comments on his reports. Several teachers had indeed noted how quiet he was last year, but that was all. He read them out: “highly introverted student,” “needs to participate in class,” “good marks, but too quiet,” and so on. The parents are separated, they have joint custody, all the usual stuff. The principal asked me if Théo was friends with any other boys in his class and I had to admit he was. They’re always huddled together, the pair of them. They’re lucky to have found each other. Same angelic face, same color of hair, same clear complexion. You’d think they were twins. I watch them from the window when they’re in the schoolyard. They form a single entity—wild, a sort of jellyfish that suddenly retracts when approached, then expands again when the danger’s past. The rare times I see Théo smile are when he’s with Mathis Guillaume, and no adult has breached their security perimeter.
The only thing that caught the principal’s attention was the nurse’s report from the end of last year. This report wasn’t in the main file. It was Frédéric who suggested I go to see the nurse, just in case. In late May Théo had asked to be excused. He said he had a headache. The nurse mentioned he’d had an evasive attitude and confused symptoms. She’d noted that his eyes were red. Théo had told her that it took him a long time to get to sleep and sometimes he lay awake most of the night. At the foot of the page she’d written “delicate student” and underlined it three times. Then she probably closed the file and put it back in the cabinet. She’d since left the school, so I couldn’t talk to her.
But for this file, I’d never have succeeded in getting Théo called in to see the new nurse.
I talked to Frédéric about it and he seemed concerned. He told me I shouldn’t take it all so much to heart. He thought I’d seemed tired for a while: “on a knife edge” were the words he used, and that immediately made me think of the knife my father had kept in the kitchen drawer, which anyone could have found there, a switchblade. He’d play with the security catch, mechanically, over and over, to calm his nerves.
It’s a wave of heat he can’t describe. It burns and sets him alight. It hurts, but it’s also comforting, a moment that lasts just a few seconds and must have a name, but he doesn’t know it, a chemical name, physiological, which could convey its strength and intensity, a word that sounds something like “combustion” or “explosion” or “detonation.” He’s twelve and a half and if he answered the questions that adults ask him honestly—“What job would you like to do?,” “What are you passionate about?,” “What do you want to do in life?”—if he weren’t afraid that his last remaining supports would immediately collapse, he’d unhesitatingly reply: “I like the feeling of alcohol in my body.” First in his mouth, that moment when his throat welcomes the liquid, and then those fractions of a second as the warmth goes down into his stomach. He could trace its route with his finger. He loves the moist wave that caresses the back of his neck and spreads through his limbs like an anesthetic.
He gulps and coughs several times. Mathis is sitting opposite him, watching and laughing. Théo thinks of the dragon in the picture book that his mother used to read to him when he was little, with its huge body, knife-slit eyes and open jaws that revealed fangs far sharper than the most vicious dog’s. He wishes he were that huge creature with webbed feet, able to set fire to everything. He takes a deep breath, then another swig from the bottle. When he lets the alcohol numb him, when he tries to visualize where it goes, he imagines one of the diagrams Ms. Destrée hands out in class on which they have to name each part: “Show the journey of the apple and indicate which organs are involved in digestion.” He smiles at this image, amused to be twisting it: “Show the journey of the vodka; color its trajectory; calculate the time required for the first mouthfuls to reach your blood…” He laughs to himself and, seeing him laugh, Mathis laughs too.
A few minutes later, something explodes in his brain, like a door being kicked open, a powerful inrush of air and dust, and the image that comes into his mind is of the swing doors of a saloon in the Wild West bursting open. And for an instant he’s a cowboy in cowboy boots striding to the bar in the gloom, his spurs making a dull sound as they scrape the floor. And when he leans on the bar to order a whisky, he feels as though everything has been obliterated—the fear and the memories. The owl’s talons that are always pressing into his chest have finally released their grip. He closes his eyes. Everything has been washed clean, and everything can begin.
Mathis takes the bottle from his hands and raises it to his own lips. His turn now. The vodka spills out, a transparent trickle runs down his chin. Théo protests: it doesn’t count if he spits it out. So Mathis swallows it down and his eyes begin to water. He coughs, puts his hand to his mouth, and for an instant Théo wonders if he’s about to throw up, but after a few seconds Mathis can’t stop himself from laughing even harder. Théo immediately clamps his hand over his mouth to shut him up. Mathis stops laughing.
They hold their breath, keep still and listen for any sounds around them. In the distance they hear the voice of a teacher they can’t identify, a droning monologue in which no words are distinguishable.
They’re in their hiding place, their safe place. This is their territory. Under the cafeteria stairs they’ve discovered this empty space, ten square feet, almost high enough for them to stand up in. A large cabinet has been put here to block access, but with a bit of agility, they can slide underneath. It all comes down to timing. They have to hide in the bathroom until everyone has gone back to class. Then wait a few more minutes until the hall monitor has done the hourly check to make sure no students are hanging around the corridors.
Every time they manage to slip under the cabinet, they realize they have just an inch to spare. In a few months, they won’t be able to do it anymore.
Mathis passes him the bottle.
After a final swig, Théo runs his tongue over his teeth. He loves the taste of salt and metal that lingers in his mouth for a long time, sometimes for hours.
The distance between index finger and thumb is their way of gauging how much they’ve drunk. They try to do this several times, without managing to keep their fingers still. They burst out laughing.
They’ve drunk a lot more than last time.
And the next time, they’ll drink even more.
This is their pact, and their secret.
Mathis takes the bottle back, wraps it in paper and slips it into his backpack.
They each take two sticks of Airwaves mint and licorice gum. They chew them carefully to release the flavor, moving the gum around their mouths. It’s the only kind that conceals the smell. They’re waiting for the right moment to re-emerge.
Once they’re back on their feet, they feel different. Théo’s head is bobbing back and forward imperceptibly.
He’s tiptoeing across a liquid carpet with a geometric pattern. He feels as though he’s outside his own body, just alongside it, as though he’d left his body but is still holding it by the hand.
School noises barely reach him. They’re muted by some invisible, absorbent liquid that’s protecting him.
One day, he’d like to completely lose consciousness.
Plunge into the dense fabric of drunkenness and allow himself to be covered, buried, for a few hours or forever. He knows that can happen.
I’m watching him without meaning to. I’m aware that my attention keeps going back to him. I force myself to look at the others, one by one, when I’m talking and they’re listening, or when they’re hunched over their Monday-morning quiz. It was Monday in fact when I saw him come into class, his face even paler than usual. He looked like a kid who hadn’t had a minute’s sleep all weekend. His actions were the same as everyone else’s—taking off his jacket, pulling out his chair, putting his backpack on the table, unzipping it and taking out his notebook—I can’t even say that it struck me as slower than usual, nor more jittery, and yet I could tell he was exhausted. At the start of the class, I thought he was going to fall asleep, because he’s already done that a couple of times since the beginning of the year.
Later, when I was talking about Théo in the staffroom, Frédéric pointed out, without irony, that that hardly made him unique.
Given the time they waste staring at their screens, if we worried about every student who looked tired, we’d spend all our time producing reports. Dark rings around their eyes don’t prove anything.
It’s irrational, I know.
I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. No facts and no proof. Frédéric is trying to stop me from worrying so much. And being so impatient. The nurse has said she’ll ask to see him and I believe her.
The other evening I tried to explain this oppressive feeling of a countdown I’ve had for a few days, as if a timer had been activated without our knowledge and precious time was draining away without us being able to hear it, leading us in silent procession toward something ridiculous whose impact we’re incapable of imagining.
Frédéric told me again that I looked tired.
He said, “You’re the one who should be resting.”
This morning I went on with the lesson about the digestive system. Théo suddenly sat up, listening with more focused attention than normal. I drew a diagram on the board showing how liquids are absorbed and he copied it down in his notebook with unusual patience.
At the end of class, I couldn’t stop myself from keeping him behind. I don’t know what had gotten into me, but I put my hand on his shoulder to get his attention and said, “Théo, will you stay behind for a minute, please?” Immediately an indignant murmur rippled through the class: what right did I have to detain a student without an explicit reason when nothing had happened during the lesson to justify my request? I waited till everyone had gone. Théo still had his head down. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t back off, so I had to come up with something, a pretext, a question, anything at all. What had I been thinking? When the door finally closed behind the last student (Mathis Guillaume, of course), I still had nothing. The silence went on for a few seconds, Théo kept staring at his Nikes. And then he looked up. I think it was the first time he’d looked at me properly, without his eyes darting away. He stared at me but said nothing. I’d never seen such an intense stare from a boy of his age. He didn’t look surprised or impatient. It wasn’t a questioning look. It was as though it was completely normal that we should have ended up like this, as though it were all preordained, a foregone conclusion. Equally obvious was the impasse we were in, the impossibility of taking another step forward, of venturing anything. He looked at me as though he’d understood the instinct that made me keep him back, as though he also understood that I couldn’t take it any further. He realized exactly what I was feeling.
He knew that I knew, and that I could do nothing for him.
That’s what I thought. And that suddenly choked me up.
I don’t know how long this went on. The words were scrambled in my head—parents, home, tiredness, sadness, everything OK?—but none of them produced a question I would have allowed myself to ask.
In the end I smiled, I think, and in a voice I didn’t recognize, an uncertain voice that didn’t belong to me, I heard myself ask, “Are you with your father or your mother this week?”
He hesitated before answering.
“My father. Well, until this evening.”
He picked up his bag to put over his shoulder, the signal that he was about to go, which I should have let him do some time ago. He headed toward the door.
Just before he left, he turned to me and said, “But if you want to speak to my parents, it’ll be my mother who comes.”
After school he hung around outside for ten minutes and then went back to his father’s to pick up his things. The curtains hadn’t been opened. He just put on the kitchen light to see his way to his bedroom. As he crossed the living room, he heard a strange sound, a sort of intermittent, muffled crackling, as though an insect were trapped somewhere. In the darkness he tried to work out where the noise was coming from and then he realized the radio had been left on since the morning and the volume turned down so that the words could no longer be made out.
Every Friday it’s the same drill: he gets everything together, his clothes, shoes, all his books, folders and notebooks, his ping-pong paddle, his ruler, tracing paper, felt pens, drawing pad. He must not forget anything. Every Friday, loaded up like a mule, he migrates from one place to another.
In the subway car, people look at him. They’re probably afraid that he’ll fall or faint, his small body staggering under the weight of all those bags. He bends, but he doesn’t weaken. He refuses to sit down.
In the elevator, before he lands on the opposite shore, he puts down his load, gives himself time to catch his breath.
This is what he has to do every Friday at more or less the same time: this shift from one world to the other, with no gangway or guide. Two complete worlds, without any common ground.
Eight metro stops away: another culture, other customs, another language. He only has a few minutes to acclimatize.
It’s half past six when he opens the door, and his mother is already home.
She’s sitting in the kitchen, chopping intriguingly shaped vegetables. He’d like to ask what they’re called but now’s not the right time.
- "Taut and wrenching... A sense of foreboding rises as characters attempt to steer through their complicated routes, misgivings, and internalizations."—Leah Strauss, Booklist
- "If you're looking for a summer thriller, be sure to pick up a copy of The Loyalties."—Grace Dearing, City Beat
- "Packs a hefty emotional punch. It reminded me of Leila Slimani's terrific The Perfect Nanny."—Bookseller
- "Narrated with punch and pace. You're kept reading helplessly to the desperate cliff-hanger finish."—Daily Mail
- "The latest literary sensation."—Daily Telegraph
- "Delphine de Vigan coils these stories together in a taut, intense novel of secrets, lies, and the unknowable depths of others."—Tatler
- "One of the finest writers of psychological fiction in France today."—France Magazine
- "It's a deceptively simple novel---an impression enhanced by the unfussy prose, shorn of literary flourish or artifice---but a powerful, thought-provoking one."—Country and Town House
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown and Company