At the end of the twenty-first century—in a transformed America—the sons of convicted felons are tested for a set of genetic markers. Boys who test positive become compulsory wards of the state—removed from their homes and raised on “Goodhouse” campuses, where they learn to reform their darkest thoughts and impulses. Goodhouse is a savage place, part prison and part boarding school, and now a radical religious group, the Holy Redeemer’s Church of Purity, is intent on destroying each campus and purifying every child with fire.
The day I committed my first crime I was dressed in civilian clothes—a wool suit and a wide, brightly patterned necktie. Many boys before me had worn these clothes. Goodhouse kept hundreds of donated items at the ready so that its students might feel comfortable going into the world without their uniforms. They wanted us to feel like everybody else, but I’d never seen civilian boys in suits. I flexed against the fabric of my coat. It was too small.
“I’m losing feeling in my hands,” I whispered.
“Stand still,” said Owen. He was my roommate, a stocky kid with black hair and a birthmark on his right cheek that looked like a cluster of freckles. He’d been out on a number of these and I considered him the expert, though today we would be separated. He was headed somewhere alone. He said it was an interview. “Nothing bad will happen as long as you act right,” he said. “Do what you’re told and don’t make eye contact.”
We were in the gymnasium waiting for permission to board buses and spend an afternoon with a host family in town. In principle, these Community Days were meant to prepare us for our eventual integration into society. I was seventeen and I’d never been inside a civilian home—I’d never eaten in a restaurant, never owned anything that didn’t first belong to the school. But soon I would graduate. In a year I’d pick one of the professions available to me and I would step into a wider world. I had to be ready.
“I feel like I’m going to be sick,” I said. “You think I could stay behind if I puked?”
“I’d report you,” Owen said.
I unbuttoned my wool jacket. We all stood at attention, shoulder to shoulder. It was unusually warm for May and the room smelled strongly of sweat and moth repellant. The polished floor was full of colored lines for different games that I’d never played and couldn’t name. Originally the gymnasium was part of a series of buildings that made up the Preston School of Industry. It had been founded in Ione, California, in 1894—just under two hundred years ago—and it had been a reformatory for regular boys. The gym was a beautiful remnant. Tall wooden windows lined its longest walls. They were rounded at the top, their uppermost panes of glass splayed like fans.
Over our heads the footsteps of proctors rang on the metal balconies. The proctors left dark silhouettes against the windows as they passed. Only our class leaders actually stood on the floor with us, circulating among us, keeping order. Unlike the proctors, who were forbidden to touch us, class leaders were free to use their fists.
“Just keep your mouth shut,” Owen said, “and look really grateful, no matter what they say. And don’t touch anything,” he said. “They hate that, and it’s hard to do when they have candy dishes and little glass elephants, and once, this kid had a plastic box full of ants that he said he was farming.”
I stared at Owen. “Farming?” I asked. “For food?”
“Who knows.” He shrugged. “It’s always a freak show, and they write detailed reports about you afterward, and staff pays a lot of attention to them.”
I felt a jolt of nervous energy. I still had nightmares about what had happened at my last school. I took thirty milligrams of monofacine every evening. It was supposed to help me sleep, help me forget.
“And don’t talk to the women,” Owen said. “Nobody likes that.”
“I wasn’t going to,” I said. I pulled off my jacket and plucked at my shirt, trying to circulate some air. Years ago, a Goodhouse boy named Ephram had attacked a civilian girl on a Community Day. He’d been strangled to death by her father. Even I—a recent transfer to Ione—knew the story. “I’m not going to end up like that Ephram kid,” I said.
“Then don’t look all sweaty and bug-eyed,” Owen said.
More boys were pulling off their jackets. One student a few yards from where we stood actually fainted in the heat. Some boys cheered and one called him a pussy. Proctors shouted at us to stand still.
“You want to know the real reason they strangled that Ephram kid?” Owen whispered, but I could tell his tone was playful.
“Never mind,” I said. “Forget it.”
“Because he touched their ant farm,” he said.
“Shut up,” I said, and Owen punched my arm to warn me that our class leaders were passing. We both went silent and still.
Class leaders had special uniforms. They wore the same denim pants we did, but their blue button-down shirts were a darker hue and the school crest on the front pocket was embroidered in gold. Headmaster Tanner called these boys his right hand—the hand of correction. At my last school they had been different, more constrained. Here, it seemed, there were no limits.
We had two leaders for our year. The first was named Creighton. He had ruddy skin, white-blond hair, and white eyebrows like albino caterpillars. He wasn’t very tall, but he was thick in the chest. No one had been able to depose him. Our second class leader was Davis, a lanky black kid who always had a sweet expression on his face. Owen had nicknamed him Diablo since he was friendly and solicitous, right until he punched you in the gut.
The only way to become a class leader was to beat one of them senseless. But there was always the danger that you would fail and end up like Lowell, who was currently mopping the floor of the gymnasium, running into boys as if he didn’t see them. There was a small but important dent in Lowell’s forehead, and he often sang to himself—his voice flat and meandering, like he was speaking a different language.
* * *
I’d been at this school since January, but I’d been in the Goodhouse system since I was three years old. The first thing they did when you entered the system was change the name you were given at birth. I once believed that I’d recognize my original name, that I’d know when another boy was called by it—that it would sound some bell inside me, trigger some alarm. The school had called me James after St. James the Greater, an apostle who’d found God around the time he was run through with a sword. They’d said it was a name to grow into.
Goodhouse had come out of an idea—a program meant to map the genetic profile of prison populations. What the researchers had found was this: The worst inmates, the most impulsive, the most violent, the least empathetic, all shared certain biometric markers. But these were prisoners. They cost the state millions of dollars to warehouse every year. And they’d been children once. They had not always been beyond help. It was too late for adults, but young boys were different. They could be molded, instructed, taught. If intervention occurred at an early age, they could be salvaged.
And so, for the past four decades in America, genetic testing had been mandatory for the family of anyone who committed a violent felony. More and more people were being tested each year. More and more families were brought to the courthouse for a cheek swab—to be released if they were normal, to be registered if they were outside the age limit, to be immediately surrendered if they were positive and male and under the age of six. That had been me.
I understood that I was part of a lucky percentile—the ones who were given a new life, the ones who could be remade from the inside out. And so I’d grown up reading only Goodhouse-approved books, practicing Goodhouse-approved meditations. I’d watched endless instructional videos showing us the lives we could potentially lead—orderly, right-thinking lives. Imagine busy, happy citizens taking great joy in painting houses, cleaning windows, installing water reclamation systems. “The wrong-thinking boy will seek to take advantage of your better self,” the videos told us. “Vigilance is the only defense.” Goodhouse encouraged us to think of ourselves as two people in one body. One person was fine and ordinary, while the other was filled with bad impulses. “Always question your motives,” the school taught us. “Double-check an impulse. Know which boy you are talking to.”
Owen said that Goodhouse treated all its students like budding schizophrenics. And though we joked about it, I was sincerely worried that I’d never experienced this duality. I knew myself to be only one person—and how good or how evil this person was, I didn’t really know.
* * *
Overhead, the speakers crackled and Headmaster Robert Tanner walked out onto one of the balconies. He stopped in front of the safety railing and frowned at us. The microphone in his collar activated and I heard the faint suck of his breath. He wore his customary black suit. His skin was prematurely wrinkled, as if his body were sheathed in crumpled brown paper bags. His entourage stood behind him, his secretary and his personal security guard.
Tanner looked grim. His hair was graying at the temples, and it seemed to have worsened overnight.
“Good morning,” he said, his voice booming around us. The proctors stopped pacing. The whispering subsided.
“We find ourselves on the threshold of yet another Community Day,” he said. “I don’t have to remind you that it is a great honor to represent the school—to act as ambassadors, if you will. Please remember that these families are the building blocks of a society that has nurtured you—fed, clothed, and educated you with its tax dollars. You will greet them with humility and gratitude. They are your champions, and I expect every boy here to make us proud. That said”—he cleared his throat, a growling bark that was worse for the amplification—“some of you will be staying behind.”
I felt a surge of hope. As curious as I was about regular people, I didn’t want to go to their houses and be their guest. I’d been having nightmares all week and I was seeing things again—just little flashes of red out of the corner of my eye, or else I’d glimpse a friend from my old school standing in a group of boys. Then, when I looked again, he’d be gone. Sometimes I smelled phantom smoke, but the worst was the breath on the back of my neck, like someone was standing only an inch behind me, lingering until I was weak with fear, afraid to move, afraid it was the man I’d seen, the one with white hair, the one who’d taken off his mask. Not a mask. A balaclava. That’s what the police had called it. The word had been previously unknown to me, but now it stayed in my head. It conjured images of boys with blazing bodies and always—always—this man with his composed, almost bored expression. He was a civilian. He was one of them.
“I have just received word that a delivery of roofing tiles will arrive this morning. I know you are all eager to see your Founders’ Day pavilion finished.” Tanner forced a smile that made his paper-bag face look especially crumpled and sour. “It is,” he said, “for every one of us, a matter of pride that this important edifice be completed in a timely manner, and so—I regret very much that some of you must stay behind to unload the truck.”
The boys around me looked sullen. No one was excited about Founders’ Day next month. Goodhouse would be fifty years old on June 15, and Ione was hosting the celebration. But so far, the event was synonymous with longer days and endless work details.
“South Dormitories,” Tanner said, “you will return to your rooms and prepare for service. The rest of you, get on the buses.”
The South Dormitory boys, who were among the oldest, exploded into protest as they pulled off their neckties and woolen coats. “Quietly,” hissed Tanner. “Quietly! Get in your lines. I will not tolerate antics. You there, stand still.” He gestured for several proctors to descend, and they jogged down from the balcony. Their steel-toed boots made the metal stair treads hum.
“I will not have chaos,” Tanner shouted. “The rest of you, line up.” But we were already in our lines, standing shoulder to shoulder with our roommates, organized by distance to our destination.
“Bus 1,” a proctor bellowed. The line to our left shuffled forward. Some boys appeared to be holding hands, but I knew they were palming—sending messages through sign language, one hand making shapes into the palm of another. It was extremely complex, all but unlearnable unless mastered young. As a transfer I was considered unlucky. New roommates were randomly assigned on the first of every year. Students were always paired with like-standing students, but that was the only guideline. There were no reassignments, no preferences. I had been an unfortunate choice for Owen. I was unable to palm, so I’d condemned him to a semester of silence. He’d tried to teach me the alphabet, and when that was hopeless, he’d taught me shorts—gestures that communicated different phrases and commands. There was a lot of profanity in the shorts. I caught on fast.
Creighton and Davis patrolled our lines. “Hands apart,” Creighton said. “Can’t have you ladies gossiping.” I felt a little surge of hatred, which I struggled to master. Class leaders couldn’t give demerits, but they were allowed to do whatever else they wanted; they could break your bones or assign you to an overnight work detail. Every class leader in the Goodhouse system was promised a Level 1 job after graduation. They ate the best food; they lived in private rooms; they could drive patrol vehicles within campus limits. At most schools they were appointed by the administration. At Ione, however, you could appoint yourself. All you had to do was step forward and announce that you wanted your chance.
Creighton and Davis had been my welcome there; they’d taken me into the bathroom and knocked me around. It had been a relatively mild beating, just a taste of what was possible. A proctor had stood watch to issue demerits if I fought back. It took everything I had to submit, not to feel cornered on the lawn at night with the building still on fire.
“What are you looking at?” asked Davis. “Eyes to the front.” He slapped me on the back of the head.
“Bus 2,” a proctor called. Our line shuffled forward. We walked outside and were directed to a yellow school bus with a magnetic Goodhouse logo affixed to its side—a G and an H intertwined. Underneath the logo was a small, simple line drawing of a swan. This was the symbol on all our delivery trucks, on all of our boxes of food and many of the products we used, on our toothbrushes and on our soap. For the past ten years, Goodhouse had been owned by Swann Industries, a private company that produced pharmaceuticals and—it seemed to me—everything else.
I hurried onto the bus and sat down, eagerly sliding my hand between the fold in the cushions. These buses were used by the public school system and sometimes we found plastic buttons in the seats, found coins or brightly colored candy wrappers. This time, however, the seat was clean. As a boy in the system, I didn’t possess anything, and I craved the experience of ownership. I coveted anything with beauty: a fluffy tuft of wheatgrass, a dead ladybug, an autumn leaf struck red or gold. I’d pick them up and fold them into a shirt cuff or a sock, and this always made me feel powerful.
Sometimes I start my story here. I say, Things turned out the way they did because I was too long in the habit of acquisition. But if I want to be truthful, I’ll say that my story begins on a freezing night in January of that year. I lay on the icy lawn watching my dormitory burn. There were boys trapped inside, beating on the safety glass of the windows. Little stars of impact bloomed again and again as a spotlight swept lazily over the façade. Men in red balaclavas wandered the yard, checking to make sure that no one got out.
I have only to close my eyes and I’m back there, shivering on the grass, choking on smoke. The fire moans and hisses like a monster. It’s still feeding on the building, on the bodies of my friends, and I can do nothing but cower and hope that when the men find me they will use a gun and not their boots and hands.
I’d assumed that it was the end. I never thought there would be more.
PEYTON MARSHALL is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Blackbird, Etiqueta Negra, FiveChapters, and Best New American Voices 2004. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Goodhouse is her first novel.
Copyright © 2014 by Peyton Marshall