When I let myself into Dr. Mishkin’s house, I heard her voice booming from the study. Apparently she was from a generation that thought long distance phone calls required extra volume. “You must stop fussing. There is no need for you to visit this weekend. I am doing perfectly well.” A pause. “ Ridiculous. I told you I didn’t need a babysitter.”

She must be talking to her daughter, Lara, I realized. Apparently Dr. Mishkin didn’t want me living in her home. Great, another complication to add to my life.

“That is not the point,” she yelled into her phone. “She is tolerable, though she harasses me about my medication every morning, and I think she has hidden my car keys, most likely at your direction.” A pause. “You can put your mind at rest, then. She cooks and cleans and does the laundry, though it’s completely unnecessary. I am capable of doing it all myself, but if it makes you happy and stops your talk about putting me in a nursing home, fine.”

Whew. She wasn’t evicting me after all.

“Yes, we’ve talked about her accident, but not at length. She seems to be managing.” Pause. “Perhaps. But she has a right to her privacy, and I have a right not to be bored by having someone nattering on about their health. Stop being such a fusspot. She appears perfectly fit, and I actually find her company rather enjoyable. Despite getting a degree in a completely useless field she seems reasonably intelligent, and she doesn’t talk too much. Which reminds me, I have things to do and this conversation has gone on too long. Give my love to the grandchildren, not that they care.”

I reached back to open the front door and closed it loudly to announce my presence, waved perfunctorily as I passed the open door of Dr. Mishkin’s study, then headed for the stairs and my bedroom under the eaves.

I had an email to deal with, a bomb to disarm.

I didn’t want to use the college-issued laptop. It had basic security, but was too much potential for leaving a trail of network traffic. The changes I’d made to Maggie Farnham’s creaky old laptop made it more secure. I settled on the bed, lifted the lid, and stared at the blank screen for a while before I powered it up and logged into the email account that was assigned to me by college IT. The message was still there, waiting to be read. I took a deep breath, clicked it open, and read the contents.


Dear Dr. Farnham:

I’m searching for information about Emily Callander. I have reason to believe you may have shared a ride with her when you relocated to Minnesota. Can you provide me any details about this trip?


Alexandra Saunier


I opened the header to see whether there were any signs it was a spoofed account. Nothing looked suspicious. The sender used Gmail which, say what you will about a software company eating the world along with all its personal data, has relatively robust security. I copied the header details into an IP locator and saw it originated from a service provider in Lewiston, Maine. There was nothing overtly suspicious in the path information.

Next I ran a malware check and did some searches to verify Alexandra Saunier’s identity. I could go down rabbit holes forever, but called a halt after an hour. From what I could tell, this wasn’t some digital doppelganger at work. The Alexandra Saunier who sent the email was almost certainly Allie, the Allie I once knew. And she was looking for me.

I realized it was getting late. I pushed the questions I couldn’t answer into a deep, dark corner of my brain as I logged off and went downstairs to fix dinner.

“So much clatter,” Dr. Mishkin said, stumping into the kitchen as I was in the middle of prepping the meal. The counter and kitchen table looked like marauders had been through, assassinating the contents of the refrigerator with machetes and throwing explosive flour bombs. I had decided to make a curry out of some vegetables that were beginning to wilt, then thought maybe an additional dish of dahl was called for, and I might was well throw together a salad. Going for broke, I started to make an apple tart for dessert. “Why such a production? Are we expecting guests?”

“No. Sorry, I just got carried away. I’ll clean up the mess.”

“You certainly will. But you can do that later. Right now I want some tea.”

“Sure. I’ll bring a cup out to you.”

“No, I want to enjoy my tea in a civilized manner. Some peace and quiet as we sit and calmly share a hot beverage and some conversation. I’ve been alone all day, I want company, not this ridiculous production.” She waved at the mess as she eased herself into the kitchen chair that had a cushion on it molded into the shape of her ample rear end. “Besides, you have much to learn. Use the pot, and warm it properly. Make sure the water is boiling this time.” As I filled the kettle she fastidiously cleared away her end of the table, piling apple peels and vegetable trimmings together and pushing dirty utensils to the center. “That microwaved mess you made me yesterday was an abomination. Slice a lemon and bring the sugar bowl. I would like two digestive biscuits as well.” She reached for a dish towel and used it to scoop the flour off the table and onto the floor while I quietly followed instructions. When I tried to stack some dishes in the sink, making a clatter, she glared and I left them alone. Once the pot was filled and placed on the table, with a saucer of lemon slices, a plate of biscuits, the sugar bowl, spoons, and two cups in saucers (she was not in favor of mugs, I had learned the hard way), she finally broke the silence.

“Much better, yes?” She swatted my hand as I reached for the pot. “I will pour. But only when it has steeped properly. Now, tell me about your day.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Don’t be foolish. This is conversation, not an interrogation.”

“Well, uh, I had my classes today. The students are working on a semester-long project, producing podcasts about the campus.”

“This thing, podcasts. I’ve heard of them, of course, but what exactly are they?”

“Recorded stories. Like a radio show, but you can subscribe to them on your phone and play the episodes whenever you want. Only these ones won’t be online. I don’t think it’s good for first year students to put their work out in public. We’ve had some arguments about that.”

“I don’t understand. Arguments? You are the boss, you should be in control of your classroom.”

“I am.” Kind of. Not really. “They’re just angry that I told them no. I’m not changing my mind, though.”

“Wise. Too many people today are willing to make public fools of themselves.”

“That’s the attention economy for you.”


“The attention economy?” She nodded, apparently genuinely unfamiliar with the concept. “It’s about bringing in digital ad dollars. The more people spend time on internet platforms, the more those companies make money on ads. People can make a share of those ad dollars when they post stuff that will get attention, which means they learn to post things that will shock people or start a fight, which is easiest when people already have strong opinions about something. Like this one group in my fourth period, they chose a controversial topic for their project. If their podcast was publicly posted, it could be shared by someone with a large following and go viral.”

“Viral. It sounds like an unpleasant infection.”

“Yeah, weird word choice, huh? Like we’re all in a petri dish for developing the most infectious content. But it’s more like gambling at a casino. There’s an addictive feeling to it. Metrics are built into these systems so you can see exactly how many times people interact with your stuff in real time, and as those numbers go up, it gives you a buzz and makes you more reckless. Added to that, recommendation engines amplify the most popular posts about the same controversial subject so more people will click. It becomes a self-reinforcing process of seeking more and more attention. This kid in my last period, the one who pushed the hot-button topic, he’s smart and connected with a national student organization. He could reach a huge audience, and his dad’s on the board of trustees.”

“What’s his father’s name?”

“Knutson. I don’t know his first name.”

“Anders. Anders Knutson.” She poured a few drops of tea into a cup, studied it, and apparently found it ready. “I had him for two semesters of calculus and one of advanced statistics. He is not stupid. Just deeply immoral.”

“How so?”

“He’s mathematically clever and ethically shallow. After graduation and a Harvard MBA he came up with a formula to turn a little money into a lot of money. He doesn’t actually produce anything, it’s just money being moved around, but he has come to believe his wealth is a sign that he is one of the chosen people. He was invited to be on the board so he could be coaxed into making a large donation. He hasn’t done that yet, but he holds out that possibility to shape the institution as he sees fit. Ensure that market fundamentalism is promoted. Emphasize ‘traditional Christian values’ that have nothing to do with what a working class Jewish carpenter actually said. Oppose any policy that gives people who aren’t like him any advantage while insisting people like him are the real victims of oppression and censorship. He has repeatedly tried to fire tenured professors, and it works.”

“They actually get canned?”

“No, but they and their colleagues have become cautious, which is infuriating. Tenure is a social contract with two obligations. The institution offers professors protection to study and teach ideas regardless of whether they are unpopular or not. In turn, professors are expected to use that privilege to speak their truth. They owe it to society. But to earn this special protection they spend six years on probation, being very, very careful to follow the rules, please the authorities, and not rock the boat. It’s training for cowardice, and it screens out troublemakers. Pass those biscuits.”

I handed her the plate. “But you got tenure.”

“Are you suggesting I’m a troublemaker?” She seemed pleased. “I got tenure eons ago. It was not a high-stakes ordeal, then, and there were no millionaire alumni to throw their weight around. So, this young Knutson, he is cut from the same cloth as his father?”

“Sounds like it. He’s super conservative. He wants to interview people about free speech on campus, but his national rightwing student movement makes hit lists of leftist professors, so it’s making me nervous.”

“Pfft. Your salary is peanuts. Why not be brave and stand up for what you believe? You have so little to lose.”

You have no idea, I thought. No idea at all.

“In Russia,” she went on, brushing crumbs off her lap, “when I lived there as a young person, people risked their lives to copy poems and essays and circulate them secretly. Samizdat. You have heard of Andrei Sakharov? He was a Soviet physicist who became a champion of human rights. Of free speech, if you like, but his concerns were very different from young Knutson’s. Photocopiers were strictly controlled for fear of words, of ideas spreading. I wonder how Andrei Dmitrievich would react to the way the Russian state now encourages its operatives to fill the internet with malicious nonsense.”

“Flooding the zone with shit,” I said.

She nodded, delighted by the phrase. “Not the words I would choose, but quite descriptive. Sakharov was punished, of course. Stripped of his position and sent into exile.” She fell silent and sipped her tea, staring at the faded roses on the kitchen wallpaper. “He had such hopes for a better future,” she murmured. “And he played the piano beautifully.”

“You knew him?”

“Don’t be silly.” She topped off her cup. “He was a Nobel prize winner, a very famous man. But in those days fame was not the purpose of life. Russians had very little in the way of material possessions, but they had culture. Books, music, intellectual gatherings in tiny apartments. Now all they have is clothes and cars and shopping malls, just like here.”

“When did you come to America?”

“A very long time ago.” She clinked her cup into its saucer. “Let me know when dinner is ready. I will be in my study listening to music.”


After dinner, putting up leftovers, washing the dishes, and scrubbing the kitchen I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to decide what to do about that email. Ignore it? Write something short and dismissive: Don’t know her, never heard of her, leave me alone? I sat on the bed, typed out something, and deleted it. Then did it again. I didn’t see how I could ignore it, but I didn’t want to get this wrong.

Then I thought: WWMD? What would Maggie do? I was playing a role, after all, and it needed consistency. I only knew Maggie from a few hours of traveling together, but I still had old email messages downloaded and stored on her laptop. I read through a number of them, getting a feel for her tone, her language choices. And after many revisions I sent a reply.


Dear Alexandra (if I may),

I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t know anyone named Emily Callander. I realize from personal experience how dispiriting it is to meet with disappointment when doing research! I wish you the best of luck as you pursue your inquiries!




I mentally gagged at “warmly” but she used it a lot in her messages, even when writing to strangers, and she seemed to have a thing for exclamation points. At least she didn’t throw emojis around; that would have been a bridge too far for me. The boilerplate signature that appeared automatically below the message spelled out my job title—Visiting Professor of English—and the college’s address. It was something that IT added automatically when they created my college email account. Every time I saw it, it was a reminder of how much Maggie would have relished sending emails signed with that badge of her value as a human being. It made me feel a little sick as I scanned my reply, though that might have simply been the anxiety knotting my stomach.

Why was Allie looking for me after all these years? Was she being set up as Judas goat?

My internet rabbit-hole burrowing had filled in some details about her life after high school, but it only told me so much. She still lived in Lewiston, Maine. She had two kids, three-year-old Amanda and baby Grace, as well as a fourteen-year-old cat named Beezus. Her husband Marty had a full beard and kind eyes and not much of an internet presence apart from a basic Facebook page for his landscaping and snowplowing business. She had a more professional website of her own, with a chatty blog and links to a handful of essays she’d published in magazines I’d never heard of. Apparently she still wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, she had stuck with college, graduated from the University of Southern Maine, and was working on a low residency MFA, whatever that was. The photo on her website, posed before a bookcase, looked like the Allie I remembered, but with a fuller face, a haircut that flattered her, and something else. Maturity. Confidence, maybe. Or happiness.

I first met Allie when we were nine years old. I’d been dropped off at school one November morning, an alien stranded on a strange fourth grade planet, long after all the alliances had been made and the pariahs identified. Add one to the list: a knobby-kneed girl with uneven bangs and thrift-store clothing that my mother said was punk but was actually just shabby and weird. I had been attending an alternative school in Boston run by one of my mother’s friends who liked to describe it as Waldorf-inspired. Unfortunately it didn’t involve learning things like long division or how to sit still for long periods of time. I was lost and scared of the teacher, who wore a tight bun and shoes that clacked loudly on the linoleum. She was much more serious about classroom management than my previous teacher. She publicly shamed anyone who was staring out the window for the crime of daydreaming and never took breaks to mellow out with some weed. We weren’t allowed to play, except at recess, which was mostly a bully obstacle course. We weren’t allowed to talk unless we raised our hands and were called on. Basic stuff that was entirely new to me. Luckily, my desk was next to Allie’s, and she secretly coached me whenever the teacher turned to write on the board. She wasn’t one of the popular girls, but she wasn’t a total outcast, either, just a nerd who always got As on the homework she always handed in on time. We were different in every way, but she was a good match for me. Without her coaching I would have been typecast as an idiot trouble-maker. Without her friendship I would have believed that’s who I was.

When we moved away the next year—we never stayed in one place for long—Allie and I constantly messaged each other, so it wasn’t too hard to pick up again when we returned to Lewiston and I entered high school. Allie’s house became my second home. Our interests diverged, though, and by the junior year she spent her time reading books and writing stories; I spent mine reading chat forums and writing code.

Why was she looking for me?

Her reply was quick, but it didn’t answer my question.


Dear Dr. Farnham:

Attached is a photo. My research suggests this woman responded to a ride-share offer you posted at a coffee shop. Please let me know if you can confirm whether that is correct.


Alexandra Saunier


I left the bed and went downstairs to the bathroom, where I closed the door and leaned against it, fighting nausea. I closed my eyes and breathed the way I’d learned to from a YouTube yoga channel I’d turned to when I first had panic attacks. I couldn’t handle the spiritual baloney that came with it, and I was too impatient to do most of the exercises, but breathing helped. My stomach eventually settled even if my nerves didn’t. Once I was sure I wasn’t going to throw up, I washed my face and went back upstairs.

The photo was taken inside the coffee shop where I’d worked. In the foreground, some students were clowning for a selfie. In the background, though it was a little fuzzy from being cropped and enlarged, was me as I stood at the counter, taking an order. Someone had helpfully circled my face.

Maggie would want to be helpful and would probably write a long, heartfelt story about the moose and the accident and would tactfully break the news that the woman Allie was looking for had been tragically killed. But then, Maggie was naïve enough to not even have a password on her laptop. From what I knew of Allie, and from what I could piece together about her life after our friendship ended, I didn’t think she had malicious intent, but she could easily have been manipulated into tracking me down. The people I had worked for were world-class experts at manipulation and tracking.

Sorry, Maggie, but I have to handle this one my way. No more “warmly.”


Dear Alexandra,

I’m not entirely comfortable with your request. Could you please provide more information about why you have contacted me?




I checked the time. It would be past midnight in Maine. I wasn’t sure if I’d get an answer anytime soon, or at all. But I was much too wound up to sleep.

I went back to Allie’s website and read all of her blog posts and followed the links, reading the essays that weren’t paywalled. Lots about being a parent. Thoughts on her writing process. Some stories about her early childhood that made small things seem cosmically meaningful. Some commentary on politics and social justice issues linked to her life in a struggling small city in Maine. She was a good writer, but she put her personal life out there in a way that made me uncomfortable and, oddly enough, a little jealous. How could anyone ever feel safe enough to reveal so much?

What if we’d stayed friends? Would I be as comfortable in the public eye as she was? She pulled me through the fourth grade, and she helped me find my feet in high school. I’d spent more nights sleeping in her bedroom than in my own. I’d almost been part of the family, and spending time in that household showed me how family was supposed to work. A mother, a father, meals eaten around a table in the kitchen, friendly squabbling among siblings, in a house that collected clutter and memories because they lived in the same place, year after year.

They would have let me stay. What was wrong with me that I chose not to? Things could have been so different, so much simpler.

Or not. It played out in my imagination like a sit-com where my lines would sound false. Too saccharine. Not the least bit believable.

Switching between tabs, I kept checking until another email had arrived. I took a breath and clicked it open.


Dear Dr. Farnham:

Emily Callander was my best friend when we were kids. When she was a junior in high school she entered into an unhealthy relationship with an older man who was manipulative, controlling, and possibly physically abusive. She started to work for Eventive, a marketing and data science company where he worked, and she claimed to be too busy to keep up with her friends. When I shared my concern about her boyfriend’s behavior she stopped returning my calls and texts.

I didn’t think I would ever see her again until a friend came across that photo on Instagram. She circled the face in the background and sent it to me, saying “doesn’t that look like Emily?” In fact, it does.

I’ve been told Emily no longer works at Eventive. Her mobile number no longer is in service, and her social media accounts have been deleted.

When I contacted the coffee shop where the photo was taken I learned from a staff member that photo matched an employee named Amber who resigned just after she had taken a number from a ride-share sign an English professor had posted. The manager of the business was unwilling to give me any further information. However, a student worker in the English department told me you had been hired for a position in Minnesota and had run off copies of a ride-share sign on the department copier and may well have posted one in that coffee shop. So you’re my best lead.

Apologies for the length of this message. I’m sharing these details in the hope I will earn your trust. I simply want to find out if my friend needs help.




Deny or confirm? Allie had gone to considerable trouble to get this far. I wasn’t sure if she would stop looking if I denied the connection. On the other hand, I didn’t want her writing some sob-story blog post calling attention to her best friend’s death, which could call attention to me.

Plus: Jesus Christ, so weird to hear from Allie after all these years. The memories bubbling up out of places I’d sealed shut years ago were messing with my head. I thought about sneaking downstairs and snagging that dusty bottle of Irish whiskey that I had spotted on a shelf in Dr. Mishkin’s study, the room I’d once tried to clean before she told me it was off limits and stop fussing around with that duster, already. But getting hammered would only postpone what had to be done. Why hadn’t I done more to disguise myself? Why hadn’t I done a better job of staying out of people’s stupid selfies? I finally got it together enough to write a response, hoping I could put an end to her search.


Dear Allie,

Thank you for your wonderfully open and honest response. You were courageous to confront the abusive partner situation. I was in an abusive relationship myself and would have benefited greatly by having  a friend as caring as you obviously are. I’m deeply touched, and I’m even more deeply troubled. You see, I have some terrible news for you. I did share a ride with the woman in that photo. I only knew her as Amber, and she wanted to ride with me as far as Minneapolis. Although she told me very little about herself, I enjoyed her company and could tell she was a lovely person.

But here’s the part that’s so hard to write.

We had a freak accident that totaled my car. I was seriously injured. Amber (as I knew her) was tragically killed on impact. Her funeral service was small, but incredibly beautiful. Everyone who responded to the accident was there, and in spite of being among strangers, at that moment I could tell she was loved.

Are you sure the woman I knew as Amber was actually your friend? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the photo is not very clear.




The response was immediate.


It’s her. And it wasn’t an accident. He had her killed.


Oh boy. This wasn’t going to go away easily. I stared at the computer screen, wondering if it was time to start packing up my stuff.


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