Read The Boy in the Smoke Online

Authors: Maureen Johnson

The Boy in the Smoke



You can tell when your parents dislike you—when they are horrified by the way you eat, at your bodily fluids, at the noises you make and the way you play. You know when you perpetually give them a headache or make them vanish into another room and leave you with the housekeeper or each other or the dog, whatever is handy.

Another way you can tell is when it is the last day of prep school, and they forget to come and get you and go on holiday to Barbados instead.

This is how Stephen Dene finally figured it out. He had suspected it for years, but it was just a vague, uneasy feeling. This was proof—hard, solid proof. If he had been in a courtroom drama, this was the kind of thing the Crown could have produced at the end with a major flourish.

“And do you deny, that on Friday, the 15th of May, you left your thirteen-year-old son, Stephen Dene, sitting on the front steps of Chatwick House at St. George’s School, looking like a total tit? Do you deny not answering your phones because you were at the hotel spa the entire day being wrapped in seaweed or ginger or some other pore-opening swill while your son was left to rot?”

And his parents would be sitting in the witness box looking tanned and shamed. The jury would scowl at them. The judge would look down from the bench and bore holes into the tops of their well-groomed heads.

Stephen watched a lot of crime shows and police dramas, so this is where his mind went in times of stress. He often fantasized about becoming a police officer. He liked the idea of chasing down criminals and helping people who were hurt. It was a practical job, one that made sense. He asked his father about it once.

“Don’t be stupid,” his father replied. “We’re not sending you to these kinds of schools to become a

No. Apparently, they sent him to schools like this so he could sit alone on his trunk in the mid-May sunshine, smelling the first bloom of the summer, watching car after car after car leave the school. And as the numbers grew smaller, the questioning looks he got from those leaving became more questioning. What was wrong with Dene? Where was his family? The numbers dwindled. It was just him and Anderson and Dex. Dex never even looked up from the video game he was playing when he got into his parents’ car. Anderson tried to talk to him about football, and then they both got bored and anxious and stared down the drive, waiting to see which car would turn the green and shady corner first. When it was Anderson’s, and when Anderson’s parents emerged frantically talking about car trouble and apologizing and hugging him—that’s when Stephen felt something in him go into freefall.

His parents did not have car trouble. Of that, he was reasonably certain. He reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone to text his sister.

They forgot to get me.

The replies came quickly, one on top of the other.


You’re still there???

I’ll kill them.

U ok?

Don’t worry.

Then she sent a picture of herself making a rageful face.

When everyone else was gone, and the school grounds were creepily quiet except for the sound of birds screaming away in the trees, the headmaster’s wife took Stephen inside to their private residence. She gave him a plate of cold chicken and packaged Waitrose coleslaw on a tray. Then the headmaster and his wife went into the kitchen and spoke behind a closed door, but he could hear more or less every word.

“Their housekeeper is coming,” he heard the headmaster say.

“There’s always one,” his wife said. She was trying, and failing, to keep her voice low. “It’s always so sad. I wonder why these people have children? And such a shame it’s Dene. He’s a lovely boy. So smart. Going to Eton. And  … ”

They must have gone further from the door, or realized they were speaking too loudly, because all Stephen heard from this point on was a mumble.

He pulled out his phone again.

Paulina is coming to get me
, he texted.
Don’t worry

His sister’s reply came within seconds.

Vengeance!!!! I love you.

Two hours later, Paulina, their housekeeper, pulled up in her car. Her job was to clean the house twice a week, not to drive all the way to the outskirts of Cheltenham to pick up forgotten children. Paulina’s English was poor, and she had little to say to Stephen or the people at the school. She was always kind, though, and greeted him with a Twix bar and a sympathetic manner. Stephen tried to make some conversation on the drive back. He didn’t really speak Polish, but had taken the first two levels of an online, self-teaching course in order to try to communicate with her. She always appreciated his efforts and smiled, though it was a wincing smile that suggested he was destroying her language with the dull edge of his tongue.

So it was a long, quiet trip.

When they arrived at the house a few hours later, there was already music playing from an upstairs room. Only one person in the Dene household played music out loud, and it was the only person Stephen wanted to see. It was also the only person who
have been there. That person came running down the stairs in bare feet, wearing a short blue dress and silver bangles halfway up her arms.


Regina ran directly to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. Though his sister was three years older, she was also seven inches shorter. Stephen had grown fast—at thirteen he was closing in on six feet. Gina had remained a tiny terror with a whip of dark brown hair.

“Why are you here?” Stephen asked, when she let him go.

“Hello to you too.”

“I mean  …  don’t you have a few days left of term?”

“There was no way I was going to let you be all alone. I left.”

“Left? What about your exams?”

“What’s more important, exams or

“Your exams?” Stephen said.

“No.” Gina sat primly on the stairs. “
are more important.”

The fact that she had skipped her exams meant that Gina would very likely be expelled from her third school. Stephen turned this news around in his mind for a moment, then deliberately tried to let it go and not worry. This attempt failed.

This was the arrangement in the Dene household: Gina was the troubled one, and Stephen was the good one. These were the roles assigned at birth. Stephen was the one who could easily have sailed through school without making much of an effort, but he was the kind of person who couldn’t really help but make an effort and so was regarded as exceptional and ‘a good boy’ more or less everywhere he went. That he had been accepted to Eton only cemented this status. Which still wasn’t enough for his parents to remember he existed.

And Gina, the bad one, was the one who did all the good things, like made sure Stephen had someone to come home to. She had absolutely no fear—not of their parents, of authority, of the future, of heights, spiders, the dark  …  When she came into a room, that room was illuminated and doubts dismissed. She had to know she was about to be expelled, and yet here she was on the stairs, looking bright-eyed and playing with her bangles.

Why it had turned out this way, he never knew. This would be like asking why the stars had adopted their particular positions in the sky.

called, by the way,” Regina said. “They said they can’t get back until Monday.
Can’t get back
. I suppose they’ve been taken prisoner. So it’s you and me for a few days! What do you want to do? Want to go to Spain?”


“Sure. We could be there tonight, if you want.”

“Didn’t they take your credit card?” Stephen asked.

“They put a limit on it, but I just sorted that out.”


“I texted them and told them to up my limit or I’d call child services for neglect. We couldn’t make a case for it, but a social worker would have to come around and ask questions. I told them ten thousand would do it. How about Paris? Let’s have a
proper weekend
, you and me.”

To be honest, Stephen was a little scared of Gina’s idea of a proper weekend—but once again, there was something in his sister’s delivery that made it all right.

“I don’t know  …  London?” he said. “We could stay at Dad’s flat?”

“Don’t you want to do something bigger than that?”

London was hardly a journey. They lived in Kent, only forty minutes on the train. But Stephen rarely got to go there.

“All right.” Regina nodded. She looked maybe a little disappointed that they wouldn’t be going further afield, but was prepared to accept it. “London it is. Go change and pack. We leave in an hour.”

An hour later, Stephen and Regina got in a taxi to the train station—which was a quick enough walk, but there were bags, and Gina didn’t walk with bags. Paulina was confused, and Stephen attempted to lie and say that their parents had called and they were supposed to meet them in London. Stephen couldn’t really lie in English, so lying in Polish was never really going to work. Paulina looked concerned but had no power to stop them. Plus, she trusted Stephen, so he felt like a bit of a villain lying to her.

“This is your weekend,” Gina said, once they were on the train. “We’re going to do whatever

“You’d be bored,” Stephen said. This was undeniably true. Stephen’s tastes tended to run to museums, bookshops and comic stores. Also, he really would have been happy just sitting around and watching television, reading, playing video games and eating crisps for two days. That would have suited him just fine.

want,” Gina said again spreading her arms wide.

Stephen would later remember the following two days as two of the best in his life. The flat was in Maida Vale, which was well located for the shops that Gina loved to frequent. They walked down to Oxford Street (more shops, more of Gina picking out clothes for herself and Stephen), then down to Soho, which Stephen experienced through an endless sequence of coffees. Gina bought a vintage dress and danced down the middle of the street. She indulged Stephen in Charing Cross as he worked his way through all the bookstores.

Mostly, though, they talked. Gina was probably the only person Stephen actually talked to. You could say absolutely anything to Gina. She didn’t judge. You didn’t have to be clever. And she was actually interested—or at least seemed to be—in what he was doing. With everyone else, he was Stephen Dene, the good and sensible son and student. Only Gina brought out the rest.

On Sunday afternoon, they went to an American-style diner just off of Piccadilly, and they both ordered far too much food—oversized burgers, chips, milkshakes. The food spilled off the plates, but they ate it all.

“A friend of mine is going to come by while we’re here,” Gina said. “Just for a second.”


“Just a friend,” Gina said, smiling.

“A friend from London?”

“From my last school,” Gina said. “She just texted. She’ll be here in a minute. She won’t stay long.”

There was something in the way Gina was fidgeting and looking down at her plate that told Stephen there was something about this friend—something Gina didn’t want to say.

“What’s she coming for?”

“Just to give me something,” Gina said, with a smile. “Something I left at her flat.”

A few minutes later a tall blonde girl came in and tapped Gina on the back of her head.

“Heya!” Gina bounded from her seat. “Julianne, this is Stephen, my brother.”

“The Eton one, yeah?” Julianne said.

“I only have the one. We’ll be right back, Stephen. Don’t eat all my chips.”

The two excused themselves and went to the women’s toilets. He watched them hustle to the back, their heads together. Julianne clutched her purse like a rugby ball. They were gone for about ten minutes, and Gina returned alone, with a wide smile. She bounced back into her seat and started grabbing some chips.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Come on. Just tell me. I’m not an idiot.”

She laughed and took some whipped cream from her milkshake and swiped at his nose. Her pupils were huge.

Gina was very chatty that long afternoon—and she remained that way until the phone rang when they were back in the flat. From the way her face fell, Stephen knew it had to be their parents.

“Why aren’t
at home?” Gina said. “Oh? Well, maybe Paulina is lying. We’re upstairs.”

From his spot on the sofa, Stephen watched this conversation with unease.

“Oh  …  I do. I feel
. I feel so bad. I hope you got a tan, at least. And you’re  … ” She looked at the phone and shrugged.

“They’re coming back,” Gina said, tossing the phone on to the floor, where it clattered and spun. She walked across the room and half-climbed into the drinks cabinet, emerging with a bottle of whiskey.

“This looks expensive,” she said. “But I hate single malt.”

She opened the bottle and poured the contents into a potted palm, then took out a bottle of vodka instead. She poured some of this into a tall crystal glass and raised it as if making a toast.

“They know we’re not at home,” Stephen said.

“They know.”

“They’re angry.”

Gina shrugged and sipped.

“When are they going to be here?”

“Tonight,” she said. “They’re getting on a plane now.”

“Are we supposed to go home? What’s happening?”

Gina got up and started circling the living room with the strange, slow focus of a lazy bee—she was definitely thinking something, but what that thing was, Stephen had no idea. Something was building inside of her. He could see it in her eyes and restless circling and the way she played with her bracelets.

“You can’t go to Eton,” she said.

Stephen didn’t answer this, because this wasn’t something that required a reply. He was going to go to Eton in the same way that the sun was going to rise in the morning and gravity would continue to bind them to the earth. Getting into Eton was the single biggest achievement of his life.

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