Oak listened intently as I sketched out the general picture: I wasn’t Maggie Farnham. I wasn’t the struggling PhD he thought I was. I was a tech worker on the run from a company that killed my friend and might kill me. There was just enough light from a streetlamp that I could see his expression, sober, concerned, a little dazed by what I was telling him.

“My god,” he said when my words tapered off.

I couldn’t be sure he believed me. It was a pretty wild story I had just laid on him.

He leaned forward, opened his hands, and frowned down at them, as if palm-reading, before looking me in the eye. “So, what do we do now?”

We? “I’m think I’m going to have to leave. Be someone else. Again.”

“Because of Michael Knutson and all the social media crap he’s stirred up?”

“Because Eventive has likely connected the dots between me and Maggie Farnham, especially now that I’m becoming internet famous. In fact, I probably should have left already. Staying here, pretending it will all go away, it’s too risky. If they haven’t figured it out yet, they will soon.”

“Who were you before you were Maggie Farnham? I mean, besides your real self. Emily.”

“I was a barista named Amber in North Carolina. Before that, I clerked at a Dollar Store in Ohio and my name was Jen. And before that I was Sarah and I cleaned rooms at a sleazy motel in Florida. I almost got caught there. Robbie tracked me down. I only got away because another of the girls who knew I’d been in a bad relationship tipped me off that some weird, intense guy was looking for me. I knew who it was even before she described him. I hitched a ride out of town with a seventy-eight-year-old trucker who had a soft spot for damsels in distress.”

“Are you running from Robbie or from Adam Barton?”

“Both. For Robbie it’s personal, he wants me back, under his control. I’m his, and nobody else can have me. For Adam, it’s just business. I’m a threat that needs to be eliminated. He’s the one I’m most worried about. He has a lot of power.”

I ran through my escape plan in my head. I had a couple of half-baked identities ready to go that I could use until I could establish something more solid. I didn’t have much money; my escape fund was long gone, it hadn’t been possible to save any money with my previous minimum-wage jobs, and all of my savings from working at Eventive had long ago disappeared. I suspected it was Robbie who had emptied my bank account; he had no compunction about browsing my phone and laptop and had a habit of examining my finances while we were together. How had I not seen what a toxic freak he was?

But now I had a little cash in the local bank. I had access to a car, Dr. Mishkin’s old boat of a Buick. I could take it to Minneapolis tonight and dump it somewhere downtown, find the bus station and go back to living the way a lot of people did these days, scrounging off-the-books work and a place to sleep at night. Go to a city, this time; it would be easier to disappear into the crowd—except for the cameras everywhere. By now, Eventive would likely have an updated photo of me as Maggie, and would be able to match my current arrangement of facial bones to footage in Portland or Atlanta or wherever the hell I ended up next. It was exhausting just thinking about it.

“What’s the long-term goal here?” he asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Uh … stay alive?”

“Until when? I don’t see how you can do this indefinitely.”

“I know. But it takes everything I’ve got just to keep one step ahead.” This setup had been different than the others. I lucked into a decent job, a place to live. Friends. I’d let myself relax into a full life, and that had been a mistake. “At least you believe me. You do, right?”

“Of course. I mean, Cambridge Analytica was doing stuff like this until they got exposed. But think of it this way: Eventive may be powerful, but it’s also vulnerable. Once Cambridge Analytica was exposed, it closed up shop pretty quickly. We have to get the word out somehow, take these guys down.”

We, again. “I tried that already.”

“There’s more than one journalist out there. And there are federal agencies, congressional committees. Am I’m being naïve?”

My expression must have clued him in. “Sorry, but yeah. Super naïve. Adam Barton has embedded himself into the halls of power. His clients live there. As for journalists … what happened to Brian has probably poisoned the well. Nobody will want to touch this story, it’s already tainted with suspicion.”

“And I suppose law enforcement is out.”

“You think? Brian talked to a detective who worked on Aurora’s case. She was totally patronizing, basically accused him of cooking up clickbait and wasting her time with crackpot theories. The feds would be no different. They’d pat me on the head and say I’m imagining things. Chances are Adam would hear about it, with all his government connections.”

“And you’re pretty sure your cover is blown. So to speak.”

“If it isn’t already, it will be soon. It’s just luck that got me this far.” Well, not so lucky for the original Maggie. She should have been the one enjoying a teaching gig, seeing her assignments come to life. Even weathering a right-wing attack on what her students accidentally uncovered. She would have risen to the occasion and taken a public stand, something I was too scared to do.

Oak rested his chin on his folded hands, pondering. “Got to be a way. If you still had those documents, you could put them online where anyone could see them and draw their own conclusions.”

I did have copies, safely encrypted on a server in Switzerland. But that wasn’t a solution, either. “Eventive would just threaten the internet host and get them removed from the internet. That’s a service they provide on a regular basis to silence their clients’ enemies, and they’re good at it.”

“What’s the best case scenario from your perspective? What would you ideally like to see happen?”

“What Aurora wanted. To make Eventive stop doing what they’re doing.”

“So, what do we—”

“It’s my problem, not yours. I shouldn’t have told you anything. It just puts you at risk.”

“Sounds like everyone’s at risk, so long as Eventive is free to do its thing. You shouldn’t have to take the heat all by yourself. I’m not sure what the solution is, but you can’t just keep running. Besides, I don’t want to have you disappear on me. There has to be a way to confront them.”

I just shrugged. I knew he was right, I couldn’t run forever, but it seemed impossible to turn and fight against such a powerful enemy.

“Look, it’s late,” he said. “Why don’t I drop you off at home. Get some rest. Don’t do anything reckless tonight, I want a chance to think this over before you … take off or whatever, okay? Give me that, at least?”

“I won’t leave tonight,” I said. No promises about tomorrow.


I was still mulling over my options when I woke up, but I couldn’t think productively until I’d consumed some coffee, so I set about my morning routine, putting on the kettle and setting the table for breakfast.

“So you have a young man, now?” Dr. Mishkin smirked at me, settling into her chair. “I saw you sneak in late. Middle of the night and you’re climbing out of a hippy van.”

“I was out with friends. He gave me a ride.”

“He is quite handsome.” I didn’t say anything, just buttered slices of toast.  “Someone from the college?”

I put a plate of toast in front of her. “History department.”

“An even less sensible discipline than English. No wonder he can’t afford a proper car.”

“It’s better than proper. It’s a classic VW camper, it has built-in cupboards and a kitchen and all.”

“Including a bed?” she leered.

I gave her a look and went back to making more toast.

“Don’t imagine I’m monitoring your movements. You are young. You should have a good time. You may stay out all hours for all I care, I only saw you because I couldn’t sleep. It’s one of the many joys of being an old crone.” She refilled her cup from the teapot. “Lara called me last night. She’s seeing things on the internet about your students causing trouble. She doesn’t know what real trouble is, she’s led a sheltered life. But of course she’s in a state about it. She keeps texting me with things from her Facebook. It’s quite astonishing what people will say.” Her phone buzzed and she groped for it under the newspaper. “Ach, here’s another one.”

She put on her reading glasses and tipped her head back to read the message, then dropped the phone onto the table as if it was suddenly hot. She took off her glasses, folded them, and set them down carefully beside the phone.

“Are you okay?”

“Why are people so stupid?” She shook her head, disgusted but also looking a bit lost.

“I’m sorry about this.”

“Why are you sorry?” she snapped out. “What does it have to do with you? These people have nothing better to do, so they crouch over their tiny little phones typing with their big thumbs, writing ignorant things. I don’t understand this world anymore.” She picked up a piece of toast and put it down, then seemed to make a decision. She nudged her phone across the table to me. “This one is special. It’s about me.”

It was a screenshot of a Facebook post, a demented rambling mess that somehow connected the takeover of colleges by radical professors like me to Dr. Mishkin’s Russian background, suggesting she was a commie, working on undermining the country. Somehow they had found the only photograph available of her, the one from a yearbook that showed her surrounded by Math Club members, holding a piece of chalk and looking startled. Or guilty, as the post suggested. “Oh, man.”

“Such ignorance. They say I am both a spy for Russia and a communist, but Putin is far from being a communist. You’ve seen those videos of him walking through palace halls with comic-opera toy soldiers saluting him? He is Tsar Vladimir the First, stealing everything he can while stirring up nationalist fervor among the people. Also, murdering journalists and dissidents. As for my politics, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the communist party.”

Now I was feeling shaky. The only reason they would attack a long-retired math teacher was if someone knew I was staying at her house. How did this nutcase connect me to Dr. Mishkin? I had the impression the author of this weird screed was not local. It was too far out there, too strange, and it had the appearance of being concocted out of second-hand material by someone who spent hours a day “doing the research” to prove the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job. But it would take someone local to surfaced that photo and connected the two of us. “That’s pretty weird, even for Facebook.” I handed the phone back.

As she took it, it rang. Startled, she upset her teacup and a knife slipped off her plate noisily. “What?” she barked into the phone.

Though I couldn’t make out the words, the voice coming through the phone in a mumble sounded like her daughter. I slipped out of my chair, mopped up spilled tea, then left the room. I was curious, but it was too awkward listening to half a conversation between members of a family I didn’t belong to. I couldn’t help hearing Dr. Mishkin, though; she always spoke at a high volume on the phone, especially when she was annoyed.

“I have no idea. … Don’t be ridiculous. … I disagree completely.”

I wished I’d had the presence of mind to grab my coffee pot and mug before leaving the kitchen. I needed more caffeine before I could start the day’s work of figuring out what I should do before it was too late. I tidied up the living room which didn’t really need tidying, waiting for my chance. It didn’t take long.

“Goodbye.” She was frowning at her phone, snorting like a buffalo. “That was my daughter,” she told me as I filled my mug. “She thinks I should go stay with her until things settle down. Ridiculous.”

“I kind of see her point,” I said. “It’s scary seeing people talk about your mom like that. The guy seems pretty looney.”

“Don’t be alarmist. It’s just words.”

“Sometimes this kind of sh— nonsense spills over into the real world. It could get nasty.”

“No, it’s just an excuse.” She set her teacup in its saucer angrily, with almost enough force to crack it. “She wants to put me in a home. I refuse.”

“Okay, okay. You don’t have to convince me.”

She blinked at me, looking suddenly embarrassed. “No, of course not. It’s just that I’m used to my independence. This home where I’ve lived for so long. My books, my solitude. Lara brought me brochures, once. ‘Independent living,’ they called it. Hah, it would be like being in an attractively decorated and expensive prison, having to make small talk at a dinner and attend programs like armchair yoga and bingo. Do you see me in a place like that?”

“No, but it’s kind of fun to imagine it. You’d cause a lot of trouble.”

“I would.” She brightened at that. “They might have to expel me.” She absent-mindedly spread a piece of toast with marmalade and ate it. “One thing I don’t understand. Where did this Facebook person find that photo of me?”

“It was in a college yearbook.”

“How did you know that?”

“I … uh, I looked you up.”

“Hmm. Yes, it was in a yearbook many years ago, soon after I started to teach here. I don’t like having my picture taken, but a student snuck up on me. I suppose there are still copies of that yearbook in the college archives, and in the hands of sad alumni who care about such things. Perhaps this person was a Magnusson student, took calculus from me and still holds a grudge.”

“Possibly. But you wouldn’t have to have a physical copy. The yearbooks have been digitized.”

“Dear god. Why on earth go to so much trouble?” she scoffed, but she looked worried. After a moment she asked, “So anyone could find that picture?”

“Theoretically, but you’d have to know where to look. I don’t think the database it’s in is crawled by search engines.” She frowned, awaiting an explanation. “I mean, they would have to go through the college library’s website, they couldn’t just Google it. And anyway, someone local must have been involved, someone who knows where I live. How else would anyone connect us? I’m guessing the rumor was planted by my student, Michael Knutson. He might have brought it up on one of his YouTube videos.”

“What does this boy have against you?”

“Nothing personal, I don’t think. He just found an opportunity to turn a small local drama into something bigger for his fanbase, further evidence of his claim that liberal college professors are indoctrinating American youth.”

“As if youth are so easily indoctrinated. They were highly resistant to calculus, that much I know. What else did you find when you looked me up?” She stirred her tea, pretending not to care.

“Next to nothing. You were involved in a state math teachers’ organization a long time ago. You published some papers. It’s not easy to be invisible these days, but you’ve come very close.”

“I see no reason to be part of … what did you call it? The attention business?”

“The attention economy.”

“Unlike this Knutson boy, who apparently craves attention. Very much like his father. I hope this is the end of it.”

“I think you need to be prepared for more weirdness like this. Things can blow up on social media.”

“Pfft, I couldn’t care less. The only thing that matters is how Lara might blow it out of proportion. She always does. It was a lucky thing that you came to Mitagomee when you did. She was convinced I couldn’t cope on my own. Which is nonsense, but having you here has given me some breathing room.”

“Ah. About that.” I hadn’t planned to tell her anything, but suddenly it seemed unfair to leave her in the dark. “I might be leaving soon.”

She sat back in her chair and studied me. “I see.”

“I know someone who could step in to take my place, though. I mean, do what Lara wants done. He’s handy, too. Could fix up the house for you. It’s the guy who gave me a ride last night, actually. He’s a historian, but he has a side gig of renovating old houses.”

“You’re in trouble, aren’t you? I mean apart from this internet foolishness.”


“I thought so. A problem with the law?”

“Not that. It’s better if I don’t go into details.”

“That’s up to you, though I am good at keeping secrets.”

I just shook my head.

“I have secrets of my own, things even Lara doesn’t know. When I left Russia it was sudden. I left everything behind. I had to change my name, abandon everyone and everything I knew. It wasn’t easy, and I still feel as if a part of me is missing, all these years later. So you see, I know what it’s like to be in trouble. I’m quite serious: if there’s any way I can help, you must let me know.”

“Thanks, but…” Should I ask about borrowing her car, or just take it and hope she would forgive me? I had grown fond of this old woman, and for some reason I cared what she thought of me.

She watched me for a moment, then took charge of the situation. “Freshen up the teapot and bring it into the study where we can be more comfortable. I want to tell you a story.”

I did as she instructed and brought the tea things in on a tray, setting it on a low table. She was settled in an armchair with worn, threadbare arms. I filled her cup, and passed it to her, settling myself on a footstool.

“So: I am going to tell you something nobody knows. Nobody apart from some case officers who no doubt retired long ago. I am not actually a mathematician. I trained as a  physicist at Moscow University, then began graduate studies in nuclear physics at the Lebedyev Institute, a very prestigious opportunity for a precocious girl. That’s where I first met Andrei Sakharov. After World War Two, or the ‘great patriotic war’ as we called it, he designed nuclear bombs for the state.”

She drank from her cup, then cocked an eyebrow at me. “You young people have no idea what it was like, then. Both here in the States and in the Soviet Union, we all assumed a stupid political misunderstanding could trigger nuclear annihilation at any moment. We lived under a cloud, a mushroom cloud, aware that everything we knew, everyone we loved, could be gone in an instant. Like the climate catastrophe, but quicker. By the time I met Andrei Dmietrievich he had grown disillusioned with his military work. He became a peace activist, then a human rights advocate. I wanted to be part of his cause. I was very young. Could you get the blanket from the living room? This room is drafty.”

I found the robe, and she spread it across her lap. “Thank you. My old bones feel the cold these days. Where was I? Oh yes, being young and naïve. I attended public demonstrations, helped to distribute pamphlets, gather signatures on petitions. Spent hours in the kitchen of the Sakharov’s apartment on Chkalov Street.” She smiled faintly at the memory. “Such a cozy place, always full of people eating zakuski and talking about ideas. My parents were appalled, of course. They were very conventional, and my father worked for the state. He knew my activism was risky. He arranged for me to leave the institute for a teaching job at the university. I had no choice, but I continued to be involved with the human rights work in secret. Typing copies of forbidden essays on thick layers of carbon paper. You probably have no idea what that is.”

“I saw it in an old movie once.”

“Pfft.” She smoothed the lap rug with a gnarled hand. “It was good to be still working on these clandestine activities with my friends, but it was dangerous. Sakharov was criticized by the state media, and constantly harassed by the police and KGB. Even random violent attacks that were no doubt orchestrated to intimidate him. I kept my involvement secret, giving every appearance of being a law-abiding Soviet citizen, and in in 1976 was allowed to attend a conference in Sweden for science teachers. I suppose I have my father to thank for that, too, though he was infuriated by what I did.”

She held out her cup and I refilled it. Clearly enjoying the suspense, she sipped it slowly.

“While in Stockholm, I went to the American embassy and became a defector. It was not as much fun as I expected. For a very long time I was grilled for information on the Soviet nuclear program, though I had never actually worked on it. Besides, I was a pacifist. I refused to share what little I knew. It was very tiresome. In the end they resettled me in Brooklyn under a new name.”

“You haven’t told this to Lara?”

“She would put it on Facebook. I am legally obliged to tell no one. And I haven’t, until now.”

“How did you end up here?”

“The Russian community where I lived in Brooklyn was full of émigrés and dissidents. My handler wanted me to report on things happening around me, on people who might be useful to them, and I refused. Oh, they were very cross with me. In the same year that Andrei was arrested and exiled from Moscow, I was deemed both a risk and useless, so was relocated to the frozen wastes of Minnesota with the understanding that, in return for being free of espionage duties, I would guard my secrets. Of course the Soviet Union fell apart long ago, and nobody seems to worry about nuclear war anymore, but I like to keep my word.”

“Will it be a problem for you, your fifteen minutes of fame? Like, will the spooks get mad?”

“They stopped checking up on me some years ago. I doubt anyone in Langley remembers who I am, or would notice some silly Facebook rumor.” She leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on the table, sat back, and regarded me with a small smile. “So, your turn. What is your story? Or do you still wish to keep it from me?”

“I don’t, really, but it could get you in trouble if you knew.”

“As we have established, I enjoy trouble, and I can keep secrets. Go on, tell me.”

It was strange, after more than a year of hiding behind false names, to spill my deepest secrets twice in less than twenty-four hours, but it also felt like a fair trade, after she’d entrusted her past with me.

“So, ah, okay. I used to work for a tech company. Kind of a marketing outfit, but secretive, powerful, and dangerous. They gather personal data on just about everyone and use algorithms to mess with our heads, especially for targeted political campaigns run by sketchy people. The guy in charge used to work for the intelligence services and still has contracts with the NSA. A friend of mine who worked at this company gathered a lot of damaging documents about their operations, but before she could blow the whistle she got killed. I gave a copy of the documents to a reporter, and they attacked his reputation and threatened his family and made sure he’d never publish anything again. Oh, and my boyfriend who also worked there got mad one night and nearly killed me. So I ran, and I’ve been living under fake names and trying to stay out of sight ever since, but now I’m all over social media, which means they are likely to find me before long, so … I may need to borrow your car. I’ll make sure you get it back.”

She stared at me. Then shook her head as if to clear it. “Are you sure running is your only option?”

“No, but they killed my friend. At least I think they did.”

“And the police—”

“They ruled it an accidental death.”

“Your boyfriend sounds like another kind of trouble. Is he looking for you, too?”


“I don’t know how to advise you. As a young woman I stood up for my beliefs. Then I tried to help in secret and after that … when it became an option, I left. And here I am. A useless old woman.”

“You’re not useless. Think of all that calculus you taught.” She snorted. “Do you miss Russia?”

“I miss those afternoons in Andrei Dmitievich’s kitchen. I miss what I thought my country could be, but not the authoritarian kleptocracy it has become. I don’t even recognize it anymore. If I had stayed, maybe…”

She looked down at her hands, then cleared her throat. “Of course you can take my car. What am I going to do with it?”


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