The Becoming of Noah Shaw Read online
For the lost boys, and the girls who find them
TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUICIDE, HOMICIDE, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with a deadly mind, harm to others, harm to self, disordered eating, disordered thinking, disordered feeling, disordered being, body shaming, victim shaming, shaming of every kind, dark humor, ill humor, shitty humor, maiming, miming, death of teenagers, death of adults, death of authority figures, death of inconsequential red shirts. Also sex. But if you need a trigger warning for that, you’re reading the wrong book.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
My dear friend,
Sincere apologies for my lack of correspondence, but the journey has been long and, as of late, rather fraught.
You did admit that this would not be an easy . . . venture, though I must confess that I did not expect that to mean I would arrive in Calcutta as one of only three survivors of the steamer Ceres.
The first man to go missing was a merchant; no man aboard could speak to the manner of his disappearance, and prior to our voyage he was unknown to the captain and crew, all steady-seeming fellows. A search of the ship was conducted, and when he was not to be found, the captain concluded he must have fallen overboard in the night.
When the captain vanished eight days later, no one aboard could say the same.
The Ceres left London with twenty-one men aboard, including myself. As advised, I have concealed the true nature of our venture to all who would ask, even members of the Company. I expect to be questioned, come morning, about the events of the past two months, and all papers are in order. I have told my wife little more than was necessary—that I believed this journey would prove prosperous, and I do still hope that to be the case, though it is not my fortune but my fate—and that of many others—I hope to improve. Though only you are aware of that truth.
CONQUER OR DIE
WE ARE A TEARLESS, TINY crowd, we survivors of David Shaw.
Imagine it: five of us gathered like a wilting bouquet, my grandmother the lone thistle standing.
Next to her, my grandfather softly droops under the grand dome above us, painted by some hideously famous artist centuries ago. This is quite literally our ancestral home, built in the fifteen hundreds by Henry the Somethingth. Grandfather, a.k.a. Lord Elliot II, was once a strapping, reed-backed but jolly Englishman’s Englishman. Hunter of pheasants, of foxes, but not of fortune—that he inherited from his father, who inherited it from his father, and on it goes. Now, however, he sags beside my grandmother, half of his face twisted into a permanent grimace after a stroke two years ago. I tried to heal him when that was a thing I realised I could do. It didn’t work. I still don’t know why.
His light blue eyes are clouded over and staring at nothingness as he leans on his cane, his hand trembling. My grandmother can’t quite disguise her pleasure at the optics of our black-frocked family standing on the grand staircase of the grand entrance as we pretend to wait for the cars in full view of the mourners passing by on foot. Never mind that my grandfather can’t do steps—Lady Sylvia could not care less.
Imagine, if you will, a sharper, crueler version of Maggie Smith, and you’ll have some semblance of an idea of my grandmother. Add an unhealthy dose of botulinum toxin, and there’s your visual.
Standing beside the remains of my family, I’ve never felt more like a stranger. My stepmother, Ruth, grips my sister Katie’s hand as the valet helps my grandfather descend to the car—for my sister’s sake more than her own. My stepmother seems quite fine, actually, enduring this hideousness as if it were any other day with my grandparents—she’s had years of practice being a lowly American, and my father’s second wife at that. My sister, however—her ocean blue eyes are dull and clouded, staring at nothing, and dressed in black, she looks mostly dead herself; she hardly notices when my stepmother breaks away to head to the chapel on her own. We should be going with her, but my grandmother insisted on this arrangement (separate cars for second wives), and Ruth either didn’t care enough to protest, or knew better.
The eighteenth-century chapel is on the grounds of the estate, only about a half a kilometre away—its spire pierces the English sky (grey, sunless, speckled with the occasional crow). A carefully landscaped wood helps obscure the twelfth-century ruins of the abbey that preceded it. Grandmother finds the ruins unsightly, unsurprisingly, but the National Trust entered into an arrangement with some skint ancestor or another—maintaining castles isn’t cheap—and thus prevented her from fucking up that which should not be fucked with. I’m rather sentimental about the ruins—as a child, I halfheartedly attempted suicide there now and again, always returning from post-tourist-hours expeditions with knees winking with cuts, and the occasional fracture or two.
“All right, children.” My grandmother clasps her hands together as the car comes to a stop. “The carriage will begin the procession once everybody is assembled at the chapel. All you need do is wait until the casket is carried inside, then sit in the front left pew. Is that understood?”
My father’s affectless, emotionless voice is echoed in hers, and she speaks as though it were not her dead son we were gathered here to mourn, but rather a play we’re about to put on. If I were capable of feeling anything at the moment, I think I might hate her.
“Yes, Grandmother,” Katie says.
My turn. “Understood,” I say.
“Perfect.” She arranges her and my grandfather’s iron hair, along with his suit. The chapel doors are open, and a small crowd awaits the carriage hearse within and without. The valet exits our now-idling car to help my grandfather, and when the door opens—
The air is swollen with sound, more heartbeats than I can count, the threads of at least a hundred pulses quickening, the air itself seeming to inhale and exhale with each breath taken behind the stone walls. I can hear the tiny hearts of birds—crows, pheasant, pigeons, distinct from the hawk slicing the air above us. The knotty-wood-and-iron door opens, and it’s like cracking open a hive of bees—whispers and coughs and echoes, every note bursting and lurid. An old, dull impulse to place my hands over my ears and scream like I (very occasionally) did when I was a boy arises, but my ears were never the problem. My mind is.
What it usually feels like to be me:
The sounds I shouldn’t be able to hear skim off the surface of my mind. Everything is white noise until I focus, until something seizes my attention, but this, right now—it’s nothing like that. This feels like an assault, a mess of sounds, like being surrounded by instruments being smashed. It’s distracting enough that I hadn’t noticed the dozens of heads twisted over shoulders to glance at our Long-Expected Party. And lo, among them stands Goose.
The volume of the noise blurs my vision for a moment—crowds are always awful, but it’s especially worse today—and Goose is nothing more than a fall of blond hair and an open smile, flanked by the smudges of Patrick and Neirin. There’s a thunderclap of a hand on my shoulder. “Hard luck, mate,” says Goose, his voice deep and rather astonishingly resonant, rising above the din.
“We’re so sorry,” Patrick follows. A simple nod from Neirin.
Those three faces, none alike in dignity or feature: Goose light and lanky and loud; Neirin dark and soft and innocent; and ginger red and freckled Patrick.
Patrick and Neirin seem frozen in time—their faces the same as they were nearly three years ago when I left Westminster. I see snapshots of memories with their faces: Goose flashing his middle finger at me in Yard; Patrick rolling his first cigarette with ferocious concentration; Ne