I never planned to become Maggie Farnham. Blame the moose.

It had wandered far from its woodland home to the land of cornfields and cow pastures and into the path of our car one foggy morning. Poor moose.

Poor Maggie.

The day I was discharged from the hospital, I got a ride to the bus station from an aide going off shift. She looked tired in her scrubs, probably thinking about getting her kids off to school and throwing a load of laundry in the washer before she fell into bed, the kind of person who was habitually kind but distracted, constantly making to-do lists in her head. A person to hitch a ride with, too occupied with her own life to ask questions about mine. A good thing, too. I wasn’t ready to deal with questions.

She pulled into the gas station where the Greyhound made its daily stop. My head ached and I was craving the coffee that might take the edge off. “Take care, now, Maggie,” she said as I opened the passenger door.

I almost looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking to before I remembered: Oh right, that’s me. I smiled, aiming for the kind of reassuring cheerfulness Maggie would surely have projected under the circumstances. “I will.” It’s Maggie now, I told myself. I should have been used to the name after being her for the past three weeks, but the morning sun was too bright and the pill I’d taken before leaving the hospital hadn’t kicked in yet.

She hesitated, frowning. I thought she was going to say something neither of us wanted to hear.

“I’m good,” I rushed in. “I’ll be fine. Really.” I tried the smile again, and it felt more natural. Like I was merging with that girl I barely knew, whose life I had crawled into and was going to inhabit like a hermit crab, at least for now. “Thanks for the lift. For everything. You’ve all been so kind.”

I held the smile as she examined my bruised face and punk hairstyle, which was beginning to look like an intentional fashion choice now that it was almost a half-inch of bristle. I grinned fixedly as concern for a stranger fought for space on her to-do list. It was a relief when I was checked off with a nod. “Okay, then. If you’re sure. It’s your life.”

Mine? Or Maggie’s? I felt bubbles of totally inappropriate laughter rising in my chest. Stop it.

I held the smile and waved as the aide drove away, feeling as if I were waving at the girl I had been traveling with. So long, Maggie! Thanks for letting me borrow your identity! I’ll take good care of it! Then I burrowed into the plastic bag they’d put my stuff in at the hospital because nothing right now was more important than caffeine. The wallet was empty, I knew, except for an expired university ID, a tattered coffee shop punch card, three credit cards I couldn’t use, and the driver’s license that proved I was Maggie even if the face in the photo had a straighter nose, long hair, and a more genuine smile. I felt for the loose coins that had fallen to the bottom of the bag, hidden under some clothes that I would never have chosen. Wrap-around skirts made from repurposed saris, floaty floral dresses. That would have to be my style, now, at least until I had some cash and could hit up a second-hand store for jeans and tees. I groped under the corners of the battered but still working laptop and a book of essays by Annie Dillard that was full of Maggie’s underlining and scribbled notes, chasing every coin down. Good. Should be enough money to buy a large coffee.

The woman at the till gave me six cents change and a look that mixed sympathy and naked curiosity. “You the one that had the accident? The moose?”

“That’s me.”

“Terrible thing. You’re looking good, though.”

“Yeah, right.” I made a face at myself in the big mirror tilted over the counter, the one positioned to watch for shoplifters. My nose had a bend in it, my cheek bones didn’t quite align anymore, and the rainbow of purple and green had turned mostly yellow, like cheap spray-on tan unevenly applied.

“That bruise will be gone before you know it. You’ll be your old self again.” I felt another urge to laugh. Being the new self was taking all my energy. “I’m awful sorry about your friend,” she added.

“Thanks.” It didn’t sound right. Maggie wouldn’t snap out a single syllable, just because her head ached and she really needed that coffee. “It’s really sad,” I added, and for moment thought I’d captured her voice, all innocence, hope, and desperation.

“We had the jar out for her.” She pointed to a jar by the cash register that now had a blurry photo taped to it of a woman named Phyllis who had breast cancer. “To help with the funeral expenses, you know. We raised almost two hundred dollars. I hear the service was nice.”

Nice? No. Adequate, just barely. It had been held in the hospital chapel, a place I discovered when I was finally able to test my legs, rolling an IV pole with me as I hobbled down the hospital hallway. It was a dark little room with a few wooden benches, narrow slits of windows filled with colored glass. It smelled of wax and floor cleaner, but at least it was dark and quiet, away from the fluorescent lights, cheery voices, and squeaking shoes that passed by my room at all hours. There was only one person there that day, slumped in a pew and staring at nothing, probably taking a break from someone’s bedside. We ignored each other, my preferred state.

The chapel was more crowded the day of Amber Grace Schultz’s funeral service. My funeral. Around two dozen people were there, mostly staff in scrubs, a few administrators in suits, plus a couple of state cops who nodded to me, familiar from the accident investigation. They all listened to the hospital chaplain say nice things about a woman none of them had ever met. Earlier the chaplain had asked if I wanted to speak about my friend, but I said it would be too hard. Instead, I sat in the front pew with a packet of those scratchy tissues they give you in hospitals, trying not to think about Maggie, whose ashes were in the next-to-lowest-cost urn on the altar.

If we hadn’t switched drivers that foggy morning, if that urn had actually been full of my ashes, the real Maggie would have gone to the front to speak. She couldn’t, though, because she was the one who’d been napping in the passenger seat when a sudden wall made out of solid moose appeared in front of our car, making the windshield explode and the roof crumple and twist in ways it didn’t seem possible for something as substantial as a car to fold.

The real Maggie would have written a touching, beautifully crafted essay perfect for the occasion. It might have started out: Her name was Amber. I only had a few days to get to know her, but in those few days I learned that she liked crisp apples and the smell of new-mown hay and that she wanted to travel to Tibet someday. That she had lost her mother a year ago and still missed her but was excited about finding a new job in Minneapolis. That she was funny and smart and yada yada, blah blah blah.

She would say something like that, though none of it was true. Except for the apples. I do like crisp apples.

It was a relief to be done with Amber Grace Schultz. That name, Amber, it grated every time I had to write it down. It didn’t fit me. Maggie was okay. Maggie Farnham, I muttered to myself, getting used to the sound of it as I filled a cup from one of the coffee urns and fitted a cover over it. It’ll work, I thought, sipping my coffee.

Then I felt like shit because Maggie, bubbly and talkative and full of kindness and a ridiculous amount of innocence, had died and I hadn’t.

But I didn’t think about it for long. It wasn’t like this was the escape route I had intended. Blame the damned moose. I took my coffee outside to wait for the bus.


This is what led to the moose moment: Three weeks earlier, I’d seen the notice on the bulletin board in the coffee shop where I was working, one of those places with a university vibe where students with Norton Editions and highlighters studied among tables full of gray-haired  faculty members talking to each other about Henry Giroux and the evils of neoliberalism and what their incredibly gifted grandchildren were up to.


Rideshare needed.
Transportation to Minneapolis or points in between
share gas $$, driving, and good conversation.


I could see another line, one written in invisible ink right above the tear-off telephone numbers: Here’s your chance. Take it. Don’t think, just do it. After seven months of peace and quiet, too many weird things were happening: a coworker was suddenly looking at me funny, the same black SUV showed up in the parking lot of our apartment and in front of the coffee shop, a new customer who didn’t fit the profile of the usual clientele lined up at the counter to order coffee from a coworker, his hooded eyes reflected in the stainless refrigerator, staring at my back, looking away as soon as I turned. It could be nothing, but it was enough. I pulled off a strip of paper with a phone number on it and used the back office phone.

Fantastic! Maggie was sure we’d get along great. Was there any chance we could leave, like, maybe even today? She knew it was short notice but she wanted to get going, and anyway, she had been locked out of her apartment. Good thing she’d already packed, huh? We could trade off and drive through the night, would that be okay?

“Works for me.” I took my apron off, told the shift supervisor I was taking my break, slung my backpack over a shoulder, and took a round-about path to the campus parking lot where she told me to meet her. I didn’t stop by the apartment I shared with three other women. I texted them to say I was moving and they could do whatever they wanted with my stuff, just some clothes and books. They had never been very friendly, and one of them had mentioned more than once that a friend needed a place, hint, hint. My boss would be pissed, but not for long. He was used to people walking off the job, but it never seemed to dawn on him it might have something to do with his being a total jerk.

As I passed a trash can I ejected the sim card from my cheap pay-as-you-go phone and dropped it in. The phone went into a dumpster a couple of blocks away. I’d get another burner to match my next identity. As soon as Maggie dropped me off in Minneapolis I’d have a few blissful hours to drift between being one person and whoever came next. Being nobody.

We shared the driving, though it took me a while to get used to Maggie’s rusty Chevy Cavalier, with the trick it took to open the door on the driver’s side so the handle wouldn’t fall off in your hand, the way you had to jiggle the key just right for the engine to turn over. We didn’t share the cost of gas as it turned out, not after all three of Maggie’s cards were declined and she started to cry. I had enough cash to get us there, no worries. To make up for it, she did way more than her share of the talking.

Which was annoying at the time but turned out to be useful. I got to hear Maggie’s entire life story, from her earliest memories to the death of both parents, her mother from cancer and her father from alcohol, through her struggle to finish the Dissertation from Hell while working a miserable combination of part-time gigs. She talked about her hopes for the new job, a whole year at Magnusson, a wonderful little college, where she would teach eight courses. Only eight! She’d taught as many as twelve a year at different universities to make ends meet, plus delivering Domino’s and cashiering at Walmart. She had completed her degree five years earlier, but it had taken until Fall 2019 to land something full time, with benefits. Now she would have reasonable class sizes, an office of her own—an office!—and employer-paid health insurance for the first time ever. For a whole year!

She’d been so happy until that moose came out of a bank of early-morning fog and ended her story. When I was lying in bed with the worst headache of my life, woozy with painkillers and tangled up in tubes, it dawned on me the police officer who was asking questions about the accident assumed I was Maggie and the deceased—that’s what he called her, “the deceased”—was a woman named Amber Grace Schultz. This seemed impossible at first. I didn’t look anything like the  photo on Maggie’s driver’s license, with her wavy hair and sunny smile. But then, most of my hair had been shaved off and the part of my face that wasn’t bandaged had been rearranged with a broken nose, cheekbone, and eye socket, all of it painted with lurid bruises. Our height, weight, and eye color matched, or close enough.

The dead girl, the one they thought was Amber Schultz, didn’t look like Maggie either. She looked the way you do when you have to be removed in pieces from the twisted metal that didn’t look much like a car anymore. They’d had to use the Jaws of Life. What if both of us had died, would they call it the Jaws of Death?

Fortunately, the original Maggie had never been arrested or lived in a state that took your fingerprints if you signed up for food stamps, and there was no telling where her dental records might be, if a woman as broke as she was even had dental records. “Poor Amber,” I murmured when it finally sank in, when the identity swap seemed possible, then I pretended to doze off so I could think it through. Would it work? “I didn’t really know her,” I told the officer the next time he came to interview me, and he diligently wrote it in a notebook. “She was sweet, though. Worked in a coffee shop. Never went to college, but liked to read. She didn’t have any family to notify. She just wanted a ride to Minneapolis, even though she didn’t have friends there. Just liked the idea of a fresh start, I guess.”

It was too easy. So easy, it made me nervous. I figured I would have to call the people at Magnusson and explain I’d had a debilitating accident and couldn’t take that one-year sabbatical replacement job after all. Go somewhere Maggie had never been before and tell anyone who asked that she was starting a new life. I would gradually taper off the messages and Facebook posts. Erase her history bit by bit so I would never find myself in a situation where people might squint and think “that’s not the Maggie Farnham we know.”

I started the process before leaving the hospital. As soon as I was physically able I booted up her old Toshiba laptop (which the original Maggie hadn’t bothered to password-protect, bless her trusting heart). It still worked despite a cracked case and a noisy fan. I cleared out the malware and tracking cookies, reset the privacy settings on her programs and social media accounts, then read through her saved email. I connected to the hospital guest Wi-Fi long enough to download the Tor browser and look for any records of the woman I was supposed to be. A couple of digitized yearbooks from her undergraduate years. An article she’d written for a literary website, making a big fuss about some obscure poet. I read it carefully, committing the trivia to memory in case anyone asked about it. I found a blog she had started years ago and dropped after making a handful of posts about food and the weather and how she felt about a book she’d read. I poked deeper and found a few more tidbits: records from her overdrawn bank account and credit cards, North Carolina voter registration, some of her previous addresses. Her parents’ obituaries.

Her hard drive and Facebook account were more informative, but not by much. As talkative as she had been, the old Maggie didn’t seem to have many friends, and the men in her life didn’t appear to last more than a date or two, thank goodness. Nobody to sweep into the new Maggie’s life to renew a romance and ask what happened to the birthmark on her back or the tattoo on her butt, if she’d had such things before ending up in an urn with the wrong person’s name on it.

The emails revealed a part of my new identity that wasn’t so great. I not only owed the hospital the ridiculous deductible and copays for the bare-bones coverage Maggie had signed up for, I had over $100,000 worth of school loans to pay off. All that money for an English PhD? Girl, what were you thinking?

The job she had been so excited about didn’t pay much more than my minimum-wage gigs, but I was tempted to stick with it, at least until I was fully healed from the moose encounter. I’d been living in a college town, and liked it. The vibe was chill, there were a lot of transients, and it wasn’t hard to blend in with crowds. The work sounded easy and I could probably pick up something on the side while I figured out my next steps. How much effort would it take to teach bored college students how to write essays in classes that only met three hours a week?

It turned out to be a little more complicated than that.


The first problem was that I was supposed to get settled in and start teaching in the first week of September but wouldn’t get a paycheck until the end of the month, and no, they didn’t give advances, or so the woman who guarded the HR office said, looking a little scared. New faculty members probably didn’t show up with a limp, a misshapen face full of bruises, and a wrinkled dress that didn’t fit very well, asking for money a week before classes started. Or maybe she could tell, somehow, that the new English professor had slept on a Greyhound bus, hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours and had nowhere to sleep. She suggested I talk to my department chair. Yeah, that’s a nope. I had to be prepared before I talked to the people who’d hired Maggie and I was barely keeping it together.

The second problem was that it was dawning on me that I couldn’t just settle into Maggie’s job. No way this was going to work. Magnusson College was in a tiny town two hours northwest of Minneapolis. Mitagomee, Minnesota had a water tower and a grain elevator by the tracks, a couple of gas stations, four bars, three churches, a two-block strip of old brick buildings they called “the downtown” full of dusty antique shops and “for rent” signs, and an ambient aroma of manure thanks to a big dairy operation somewhere upwind. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone’s business, where someone asking about Maggie Farnham would likely get helpful directions without a second thought. It could be on a poster for the American Heartland, so peaceful and sleepy—and completely unsafe for me.

But before I made any decisions, I needed to eat and a place to sleep for the night. Then I would figure it out.

A couple of blocks down Main Street from the so-called business district there was a Dollar Store. Of course there was, they grew like fungus in decaying towns. It looked a combination of sad and sinister, with grass growing up through cracks in the parking lot and cardboard patching the broken glass on the lower part of the door, like somebody had needed strawberry Twizzlers real bad in the middle of the night and tried to kick his way in.

Inside there were cameras and mirrors and a battle-ax of a woman at the cash register who glowered at me, her expression saying she knew shoplifters when she saw them and would keep her eye on me. Dammit. I paused by the corkboard near the entrance, pretending to read notices pinned up there. Maybe if some kids came in to buy snacks the woman would get distracted and I could sneak a candy bar into my pocket. Or maybe I could just faint gracefully onto the dirty linoleum floor and lie there until somebody took pity and gave me something to eat. Twizzlers would do.

Room and board. The large font letters swam a little on the stapled sheet of paper. Light housekeeping. Needed a valid driver’s license. Five hundred bucks a month. A fuzzy photo of a Victorian house that looked haunted. I pulled it off the board and asked the woman at the cash register if I could make a local call.

Are you kidding? Of course not. Instead, I borrowed the cell phone of  Latina woman who had pulled up outside in a carful of children. While she waited politely, swatting kids who were getting antsy about buying candy, I talked myself into a job and a place to live.

I mean, seriously? I wouldn’t hire me, not without references or an actual interview. But clearly the woman who answered the phone was desperate.


“So, these are the house keys. This one’s the front door, this is … I don’t know, you’ll have to figure it out. These are the car keys. It probably needs an oil change. My mother isn’t much for taking care of things. Just don’t let her drive. She thinks she can, but she can’t see a goddamn thing. It’s only a matter of time before she—” The phone ringing in her bag made her pause. “Hang on.”

Lara Stern turned away, swept her long and perfectly groomed hair back to put her phone to her ear with a sigh. Muffled voices in the background, strained patience in hers, snapping at last. “I’m about to leave. For god’s sake, you’re their father, deal with it.” She jabbed the phone off and dropped it back in her bag. “Sorry about that. Unbelievable. I’m only here for a few days and … well, anyway, they obviously can’t cope, so I need to get going. You have my cell. Call if you need anything. And listen, Mom can be difficult. She’s independent, she hates being old, she’ll give you a hard time. Don’t let her push you around. Make sure…” She flicked a forefinger against the corners of her eyes, grimacing, annoyed with her own spurt of emotion. “Make sure she eats, and takes her pills. I’ll be back in a week or two. If this works out, if you can stand it, you’ve got the job for the rest of the academic year. But call if things get really bad.”

“It should be fine,” I said, remembering to give her a Maggie smile. “I’m looking forward to getting to know your mother.”

“Huh!” Her laugh was half a sob. “Good luck. I mean, I love her dearly, but I wish she would just sell this dump and move into the place I found for her. It’s really nice and it’s close to us and they have all kinds of programs, it’s perfect.” She glared at the house, her mouth tight. “But, no. It was my idea, so it’s out of the question, forget that it’s incredibly hard for me to get down here with the kids and my work.” Her glare turned on me. “I’ve done my best.” As if I had accused her of neglect.

“I’m sure you have.” Channeling Maggie, I put a hand on her arm, gave it a comforting squeeze. “She’ll come around. It’s just hard for her to come to terms with the situation. My own grandmother went through the same thing. But don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

She was still looking at the house, with the tilting porch, the peeling paint, the vines that swarmed up a chimney and seemed to be the only thing holding the crumbling bricks together. She heaved a sigh.

“We’ll manage,” I reassured her. “And I’ll keep you up to date if anything comes up.”

“I don’t know.” As my stomach rumbled, she turned to look at me, seeming to take in my own decrepitude. Go, I thought, before I pass out and you realize how weird it is to leave your mother with a stranger who looks like a veteran of the zombie invasion. “I mean, I feel so guilty, dumping her on you,” she said.

“You’re not dumping her. You’re doing me a favor. I was just wondering where I’d find a rental in a small town like this, and you solved that problem. And honestly? I could use the money, what with school loans to pay off. The guest room will be perfect for me, and so convenient, just a few blocks to campus. Besides, I like her, and I hope she’ll like me.”

“I wouldn’t count on it. We were ready to kill each other.”

I gave a lighthearted Maggie laugh. “Families, right?” I gave a little shoo-wave. “We’ll be fine. Get out of here. Go.”

She gave one last, lingering glance at the house. Following her gaze, I saw she was checking to see if her mother would be at the window to see her off, but no one was there. She scrabbled in her bag, slipped on dark glasses, and climbed into her car. Finally. I waved as she drove away, doing my best to project competence and safety, but she didn’t look back.

“She’s gone at last?” the old woman croaked as I came in. Dr. Anna Mishkin, retired professor of mathematics, was pretending indifference, seated in a wingback chair and leafing through a book though it was too dark to see the pages. Her nose was long and straight, perfect for looking down at people with disdain, her fingers were knotted with arthritis, and silver hair escaped from a braided bun, tendrils framing her face like a halo made of a tangle of barbed wire.


She made a face, hacked up an impressive loogie, and swallowed it before pointing at a nearby chair. “Take a seat. We need to get some things straight.” Unlike her daughter’s Midwestern accent, hers was a mix of heavy-duty Brooklyn and East European.

“Sure. In a minute.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said crossly, but I pretended I hadn’t heard her as I headed to the kitchen. Not much in the fridge: wilted celery, a wrinkled orange long past its sell-by date, some pickles, a mason jar full of shelled walnuts. I was scarfing nuts when she stumped into the kitchen, leaning on a cane. “Sorry,” I mumbled, then finished chewing and swallowed. “Haven’t had a chance to eat today.”

She shook her head, disapproving. “My daughter goes and finds a street urchin to spy on me, typical.”

I shrugged, stuffed another handful of nuts in my mouth. Maybe she would get on the phone and demand her daughter return to kick me out, but I didn’t care. I needed food.

“Also, your face is a mess. You have a mean boyfriend?”

I shook my head, finished chewing and swallowed. “Mean car accident.”

“Is that why your hair style comes straight from the gulag?” I nodded, took another handful of nuts. She tipped her head, giving me a critical once-over. “It looks okay on you. And so practical, no fuss, no curly nonsense.” She fluttered a hand, sketching the long and perfectly-coifed beach waves that framed her daughter’s face. “Must be low maintenance. I should try it, you think?” She pointed to the silver braids that were wound in an impressive crown, anchored in a Medusa’s nest of loose ends.

“No, you have great hair, it would be a shame to cut it. But it must be a lot of work.”

“Pfff.” She flicked her fingers at me, as if I were a fly. “I’ve worn it like this since I was a girl, I can do it in my sleep. Later, the grocery store. But now, we feed you, skinny girl. Give me the car keys. We’ll go to the diner.”

“Sounds good, but I’m driving.”

She huffed and thumped her cane. She was a big woman, acting like a buffalo guarding its territory. I thought she was gearing up for a fight, but she was just repositioning to turn. Somehow from the back she didn’t look so big after all.


“So, you will teach English?” she asked.

“Four sections of first-semester composition this fall.”

“Good luck. These kids can’t write, and they’re lazy. They think a five-page paper is asking them to write War and Peace. Try the meatloaf, it’s good.”

“Your daughter told me you taught math at the college.”

“For nearly forty years. So many sections of calculus, my god.”

“When did you retire?”

“What is this, an interrogation? I’m the one giving you a roof over your head.”

Technically her daughter was the one who set it up, but I let it pass. A waitress stopped by our table, pad in hand. “Hiyah, professor. What can I get for you today?”

“I will have the porketta. For my friend here—meatloaf.”

“I was thinking the fish,” I said. “Never tried Walleye before.”

The old woman was shaking her head before I finished. “You are new here. Let me explain: Walleye is boring. It has no flavor. Have the meatloaf.” She took my menu away and gave it to the waitress, who shot me a complicit grin. It was non-negotiable. Surrender was the only option.

“Meatloaf it is.” The waitress ran us through the choice of sides and salad dressings before leaving us alone.

“So, what brings you to Magnusson?” Dr. Mishkin asked.

“I saw the job announcement and applied.” I stalled out. Come on Maggie, help me out here. I tried to remember what she said on that long car trip, giving me her life story. “I know it’s only a visiting position, but it’s a great opportunity. I was so happy when I got the call. A liberal arts college has always been my dream. And it’s not easy to get teaching jobs these days.”

“In English? Hah! I was on a search committee once. Hundreds of applicants, all with long CVs full of publications on postcolonial this and interrogating that, trying to sound sophisticated and specialized. Their teaching statements were all about how they are so passionate about language, but they couldn’t write a clear sentence. I suppose this is when I should ask you about your dissertation.”

I braced myself. Shit, what was the name of that poet? What was the theory she was using to illuminate something-or-other? I had committed the abstract to memory, expecting this question, but now that space where it had been stored in my brain was as empty as my stomach.

“However, I won’t,” she added, “because I doubt you were allowed to write anything sensible. I myself am fond of literature. I’m well read. Dostoevsky when I was young and impressionable, Gogol when I was smarter. Pushkin, of course. Shakespeare, Milton, all the classics. But I couldn’t understand a word of what those job candidates said. They want to make their research sound as rigorous as particle physics, but without any grounding in reality.”  She glared, daring me to contradict her.

“That sounds about right. How did you end up here?”

“I’ll tell you some day. It’s a long and tiresome story. But don’t change the subject. We’re talking about you. For example, where do you call home?”

“Nowhere in particular.” She raised an eyebrow. “I mean, we moved a lot.” I searched my memory for Maggie’s early life. “Ohio, I guess? It’s where I was born.”

The waitress dropped off a basket of rolls and I fell on them. The professor watched as I scarfed them down, demurring when I offered her the last one, amused. “Whoa. Okay, that helped.” I sat back in the booth, suddenly sleepy.

“Next question: Why didn’t you eat today?”

“No money. Which—sorry, but I can’t pay for my dinner tonight. You’ll have to take an IOU.”

She gave her buffalo snort. “Did anybody tell you the checks don’t come out until October? It’s a tradition for the new faculty to haunt the campus, attending all the events that advertise refreshments, trying to sneak extra cookies into their pockets and purses.”

“Yeah, I know they pay late, but your daughter wrote a check. I just need to get to a bank and cash it.”

“She’s paying you?”

I realized I’d stepped in it. “Well, for doing housekeeping and cooking and taking you on errands.”

She thumped the table with a clenched fist as if it was a substitute for giving her daughter a black eye. Then she pointed a bony finger at me. “I keep my own house, thank you very much. And I can drive perfectly well, whatever she says. That interfering little…” She growled with fury.

“What’s the harm? I don’t mind doing chores,” I said. “And I can cook. It doesn’t look from the state of your fridge that you’re all that into it yourself. Besides, I’ve been taking care of myself since I was fifteen.”

“I’ve been doing it much longer than you.” She angrily rearranged her silverware. “This is completely unnecessary. She’s only doing it because she wants me to sell my house and make me give up my independence.”

“Look, I don’t want to get in the middle of some family drama.”

She took a breath and blew it out, then relaxed back into the booth. “Yes, of course. It’s not your fault my only child is an idiot who wants to park me in some home for the elderly. And knowing how little the college pays adjuncts…” She shrugged. “Well, my daughter can spare the money and you could use it, so it will work out so long as you don’t interfere with my life or spy on me for Lara. Do we have a deal?”


“Especially no spying. Did she ask you to report on me?”

“Nope, nothing like that. I said I would call if anything came up, that’s all. Like, an emergency, not petty stuff. I value privacy, too. I’ll give you all you want.”

“Okay, so now I need to learn more about this person who will be living under my roof. Tell me about yourself. For instance, what happened when you were fifteen?”

So much for my privacy. “Things were messed up at home. I started staying with friends, but that didn’t work out. I mean…” I suddenly realized I was giving her the wrong life story. “Well, actually, after my mom died I lived with my dad for a while, but had his own issues, and then he died, too.”

“This was in Ohio?”

“We’d moved east by then. Delaware.” I hope she didn’t ask more about it, I’d never been there and wasn’t even sure I could find it on a map.

“What did he do, your father?”

“Drink, mostly. I mean, if you asked him he’d say he was in logistics. His last job, he was a baggage handler at the airport until he got canned.” Thanks for sharing all that, Maggie. Helps round out the cover story.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

No, thank god. This was complicated enough. “Just me and him, and given his issues, I was pretty much on my own.” Which was what Maggie had told me, something we had in common. I hoped the meatloaf would arrive soon so I would have an excuse to not talk with my mouth full.

“Yet you went to college, got your doctorate. Stupid choice of discipline, okay, but still I’m impressed.”

“I always liked school, though writing the dissertation was another matter. I mean, I got through it, but I was working a bunch of jobs and my committee was terrible and by the time it was done I hated the subject.” I could quote Maggie on that. She’d vented a lot about it. My cheeks suddenly felt hot, thinking about how I’d stolen her life just as things were looking up for her. To make up for it, I let her have the next lines. “It’s going to be amazing to have a full-time job with benefits. An actual office. Like, with walls and a door. At a college that cares about students, that values teaching. This is a great opportunity.” I felt my voice changing as slipped into my new role, optimistic and full of enthusiasm for coming semester.

“Spare me the college pep talk.”


“Eat your dinner,” she ordered as plates were set in front of us. So I did.

I was too busy enjoying the sensation of not being hungry that I didn’t notice my host staring at me narrowly as she picked at her food.

“This accident of yours.” She speared a green bean, nibbled the end of it, and shook the rest of it off her fork. “It was serious?”

“Three weeks in the hospital. I had a lot of broken bones, and they had to take my spleen out.” I unconsciously fingered the cheekbone that had been shattered and reconstructed. It made my face look a little off kilter, and there was a new bend in my nose where it had broken, but on the upside there was a good chance all that rearrangement of bone structure might confuse facial recognition software.

“Three weeks of hospital food. No wonder you are so thin.”

“A week and a half of it was through a straw. It was a big day when they let me have Jell-O. Lime Jell-O, a little bowl of it. The woman who was in the car with me, she died,” I added, not meaning to.

I pictured her chatting beside me, flat broke and deep in debt but irrepressibly hopeful. The courses she was scheduled to teach, the office that would be mine instead. My eyes filled and I blinked the tears away. Jesus, it wasn’t like we were actual friends. It felt wrong to mourn her, like I was indulging in an emotion I hadn’t earned. But then, Maggie would have teared up, I told myself. At least I was in character.

“I’m sorry.” Her face, so patrician and disapproving, had softened. Even her raspy voice had become gentler.

“I didn’t even know her,” I said, sounding angry, after blowing my nose on a napkin. Maggie  wouldn’t have said that, but for some reason it was hard to stay in character with Dr. Mishkin sitting across the booth from me. “We were just sharing a ride. I was driving. It was foggy and we hit a moose, if you can believe it. Anyway, I’m okay now. Just need to get organized. What can you tell me about the English department? Do you know any of the people in it?”

“I know them all. Impossible not to, at a small college. Also, English professors with tenure never leave. What would they do with themselves, read for fun? They’ve forgotten how. Your position only opened up because one of the faculty died, another is on sabbatical, and none of them want to teach additional sections of composition, which is actual work, when they could have intimate little seminars with a select number of deluded majors. Most of them are as old as I am, but they will never give up teaching.”

“So, am I walking into a museum of mummies?”

“Hah! Byron Gleeson fits that description, he must be over eighty now, and he looks embalmed. But that’s not the phrase I would use. I’d say…” She frowned over my head for a moment. “It’s more like a tank of hungry sharks.”

“Oh. Okay.”

She seemed to feel sorry for me and hurried to reassure me. “Don’t be worried. They are so busy attacking each other, they won’t even notice you, small fry. Just be wary, and if you want to avoid making enemies, don’t make friends.”

“Got it.”

That wouldn’t be a challenge. I had plenty of practice not making friends.


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