We sat outside the Principal’s office on a hard wooden bench for three long minutes. I could hear Binky pacing back and forth inside the cave, rolling side to side like a metronome. He did not talk to me, but I knew he blamed me for everything. I wanted to tell him that getting called to the Principal’s office was a good thing, a badge of honor among the elementary school set, even though I knew it wouldn’t help. Binky didn’t want to talk to me; the chill made that clear.
“Benedict,” the shriveled secretary barked. “Principal Vanderbilt will see you now.”
It was comforting that my memory of Principal Vanderbilt matched the reality exactly. A sixty-something balding man with a paunch and a ’70s porno mustache. When someone says the word “principal,” I think of him.
He was not alone in the office. Ms. Mittewag was there as well. She looked concerned. Vanderbilt put on his practiced stern expression. It worked on Binky, who shrunk deeper into his chair, but I could see that Vanderbilt’s face, from eyebrows to jowls, had frayed around the edges from years of foisting this very look upon generations of children. The severity was a façade. Nothing real to fear here. There was a third person in the room. A woman wearing all white, young and a bit plump, with a round kind face. She was the type of girl who would have been my friend in high school. Probably the school nurse.
“Benedict, do you know why you’re here?” Vanderbilt said.
His question sounded like an accusation. Binky shook his head. An honest response for him and a flat out lie for me.
“You’ve been talking to the other kids,” he said. “Telling them things.”
I felt our face flush, telegraphing our guilt. I could hardly fault Binky for that. Going beet red at the slightest provocation is one of my best party tricks.
“These things you’ve been saying. They’re not appropriate for a child to talk about. Do you understand?”
“Or write,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Who told you these things?”
Ms. Mittewag punctuated her question by dropping a handful of notes onto the Principal’s desk, each one containing a bite of the forbidden fruit.
“Tell us, Benedict,” Vanderbilt said, leaning forward and filling our vision. “Someone must have told you these things. Who was it?”
Binky didn’t answer.
Principal Vanderbilt sat back again. He paged through our file.
“You have siblings. An older brother. Did he tell you those things?”
Binky remained silent.
“Or your sister maybe. Sara. I remember her.”
Binky didn’t mean to shout, but there is no controlling an eruption of loyalty.
“It wasn’t your sister?”
Don’t tell them the truth, I said.
He ignored me.
“It was him. He told me.”
“So it was your brother,” Vanderbilt said. He checked the file again. “Charles.”
“No, not him,” Binky said, his voice sinking deep into quicksand.
The room grew quiet. The three adults exchanged glances. Principal Vanderbilt came out from behind the desk. He took a seat next to us.
“You can tell us the truth here. This is a safe place. Have you been talking to another adult? A man? Someone you don’t know?”
“No. Not … I don’t know. I …”
Binky didn’t have the words. The room filled with dread, three adults wondering if something horrible had happened on their watch.
They think you’ve been talking to strangers, I said.
I don’t talk to strangers.
Tell them that.
But I talk to you. I don’t know you.
You do know me, I said. You know you do.
Tell them Charles told you.
That’s a lie.
Sometimes you need to lie.
“Benedict, are you okay? Benedict?”
We focused on the room again. The nurse was kneeling down in front of us now. She had a hand on our forehead and looked deeply into our eyes.
Binky nodded at her and she could not hide her relief.
“It was Charles,” Binky said. “He told me.”
Again, the adults spoke wordlessly, assessing the situation. Principal Vanderbilt wanted to discuss with the nurse. Ms. Mittewag took Binky’s hand and led him out of the room.
I shouldn’t have done that.
No, I said. It’s okay. Better this way.
We paused in the outer office.
“No luck getting his parents,” the secretary said.
“There’s only one period left,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Tell Jack I’m taking him back to class. I’ll talk to his dad when he picks him up.”
We walked silently back to the classroom.
No. It’s not better. It’s lying. It’s bad. You do bad things.
Sometimes things seem bad when they aren’t, I said.
Stop saying that. You are bad. I don’t like you. You want to hurt Sara. You hate Mommy. You tell me to say grown-up things that get me in trouble. You tell me to lie.
We arrived back in our classroom. Ms. Mittewag led us back to our desk. The other kids had not returned from gym yet. We were alone. She knelt next to us, still holding our hand.
“Ben, you can tell me what’s bothering you,” she said. “It’s okay.”
In her eyes, I saw the teacher that she would become, the one I wished had taught me. Binky saw her too.
I need to protect Sara.
Binky was right, of course. That had to be why I was here. To help Sara. To protect her. Only then did I realize that I had been hoping that I wouldn’t have to do anything. I still felt that way. Maybe my mere presence here had changed things. Maybe I could stop the rape from happening just by existing.
I need to protect everyone from you.
I’m not the problem.
But I could feel that Binky had left, vacating the cave for another part of the brain where I couldn’t follow. I wondered if he could hear me, if he would even listen.
Please, Binky, I said. Don’t.
“Ben?” Ms. Mittewag said. “Can you hear me?”
“He talks to me,” Binky said in a whisper, maybe hoping I wouldn’t hear.
“Who talks to you?”
“I don’t know. He says that he’s me.”
“Is this a person?”
“No. I don’t know.”
Don’t tell her, I said. Please, Binky.
My words echoed around me, too late and without strength.
“Is it just someone you hear? Someone who talks to you in your head? A voice?”
Binky lunged for her and she took him into her arms. He whispered into her ear.
“He says things. He says someone is going to hurt Sara. He scares me.”
I said nothing. There was nothing left to say.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I just want him to go away.”
On that sentiment, we were in complete agreement.