The Perfect Son - Barbara Claypole White

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text 2015 Barbara Claypole White

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

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Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of Amazon , Inc., or its affiliates.

str2-13: 9781477830048

str2-10: 1477830049

Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant / SOS Creative LLC

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014921694

For my agent, Nalini Akolekar, because thank-you notes are never enough

CONTENTS

START READING

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

FORTY-ONE

FORTY-TWO

FIVE YEARS LATER

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR

LISTENING GUIDE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

No one is perfect . . . that’s why pencils have erasers.

—author unknown

What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

ONE

Passengers in the row behind muttered the Lord’s Prayer. Ella, however, had no plans to make her final peace with God or die in the clouds. She had a battle to conduct on the ground, after she’d cleared baggage claim at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The plane lurched and a baby screamed. Eyes closed, Ella inhaled through the heartburn that had stalked her since Felix’s text had dinged over the flight attendant’s directive to power off electronic devices. Delivered with perfect timing—no possibility of retaliation—her husband’s message had been a declaration of war. Signed without a kiss.

The young man next to her grabbed the armrest. “Rough flight,” he said. “Think we can blame the polar vortex?”

The fuselage rattled as if about to rip into a billion fragments.

“Flying, still the—” Words clumped in her windpipe like a drain clog; statistics memorized to soften her son’s fear fogged up her brain. She forced out a breath. “It’s still the safest way to travel.”

“No offense,” the guy said, “but you don’t look too convinced about safety records.”

A stereo of heartbeats thumped in her throat. Boom, boom; boom, boom; boom, boom.

“Heartburn. Killer attack.” Ella tried to smile, but her stomach began to bubble worse than a cauldron of boiling acid.

“I don’t mean to be rude”—he glanced up at the call button and back at Ella—“but you’ve gone a strange color. You sure you’re feeling okay?”

“Bit churned up with all the—” Ella made exaggerated roller-coaster movements with her arm, then paused to breathe. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to start projectile vomiting.”

“Good to know, because I might.”

“A guy unafraid to discuss puking.” She pressed her palm against her chest. “Admirable.”

“Could you explain that to my wife? She thinks I’m a total wuss.”

Ella gave a sympathetic huh that seemed to say, Spouses, eh? Felix had always believed she was strong enough for both of them, and he’d been wrong. After seventeen years of marriage, she was so tired of being the family fulcrum.

The stranger stared at her from behind thick, black-framed glasses—very Elvis Costello, very late-seventies London pub scene. Very Felix. She turned to the window, faking interest in cloud formations. The memory flashed anyway: a muggy Saturday on the London Tube; a wave of light-headedness followed by the certainty that she was going to faint; a different stranger with thick, black-framed glasses. A beautiful young Englishman with floppy hair and a hesitant smile: Felix Fitzwilliam. Who could resist that name weighted with authority, with nobility, with ancestors—she would learn later—who had signed the Magna Carta? Who could resist the laserlike intensity of concern channeled through those huge blue eyes? He’d caught her; he’d stopped her from falling in more ways than one. But that was the past, and nostalgia had no place in the present. Not after Felix had texted:

Talked with the president of Harvard about Harry’s admission.

Ella coughed back nausea. For sixteen years, seventeen next week, she alone had been responsible for the decision making that affected Harry’s life. She had been his advocate and mental health coach, his full body armor. The parent who’d educated teachers and set up code words that enabled Harry to leave the classroom when he had excess energy to burn; the parent who had battled the family’s health insurance provider over services, drugs, and appointments; the parent who had monitored Harry’s sleep, nutrition, stress, and meds. She alone had given their son enough praise for two parents. Felix had been the breadwinning workaholic. That’s what he did: he worked, while she parented to the point of collapse.