Not making friends got off to a good start.
I walked to campus the following morning and found my way to the English department, on the second floor of a 1950s-era box built of yellow bricks that were turning a strange green color, like they were growing mold. Tears of rust wept from the flashing around the windows. Somehow I doubted the humanities building was on the admissions tour. Once up the stairs, a pear-shaped woman with frizzed hair like a Brillo pad blocked my path as I turned down a dark corridor. “Hold on. Where’s your yellow card?”
“Sorry, I didn’t know I needed it. Where do I get one?” I assumed it was some sort of ID, which made sense. The campus was eerily quiet. It would be a reasonable security precaution to require clip-on badges for anyone who wandered into the dark, nearly empty buildings of the post-apocalyptically vacant campus.
“You can’t get one, not for this floor.” She folded her arms, triumphant, like she’d just won a debate. “Nobody in these departments has students authorized to work this summer.” So there.
“I’m not a student.”
She tilted her head back, taking my words as an insult or a threat. “Am going to have to call security?”
“Why? I’m just looking for my office. I’m Maggie Farnham. I teach here?” I couldn’t help turning it into a question. She seemed so skeptical I was about to produce my driver’s license when something brushed the back of my neck. I jumped, pivoting at the same time, and realized two things.
One, I should have heard the man behind me approach and been ready to either deck him or knee him in the balls and two, it was a good thing he had sneaked up on me so silently because he looked important, and security definitely would have been called, and probably the police, if I’d assaulted him. Neck-touching is seriously creepy, but not strictly speaking illegal.
“Dr. Farnham.” His voice was smooth and somehow sticky, like warm molasses. “I’m Peter Van Meter. Lovely to meet you in person at last.” He opened his arms as if to embrace me but he must have seen something in my expression and turned it into a handshake. My hand was enveloped in a warm, moist, much-too-long clasp. He patted the back of it in an avuncular way, assuming your uncle was a perv. He gazed down at my chest, saying to it “I heard about your accident. How dreadful. Have you fully recovered?”
“Yeah.” I recovered my hand, too, and pretended I was brushing something off my skirt so I could wipe it. Ugh. “Pretty much. I’m looking forward to classes starting. Thought I would set up my office and figure out stuff like making copies and getting onto the learning management system so I can upload my course materials.” I didn’t know what exactly that meant, but Maggie had talked about how important it was.
“The redoubtable Mrs. Anderson can help you.” He beamed at the woman who had blocked my way.
She beamed back laser rays of disapproval. “Don’t ask me to do the technology stuff.”
“Nor me. I can’t explain the ‘learning management system’”—he waggled his fingers in air quotes—“because I refuse to use it.”
“I thought we had to.”
He cackled. It was an actual cackle that would have been at home in an old horror movie. “They send a scolding email about it every semester, along with a demand to include entire paragraphs of legalese in every syllabus. Ridiculous. As a senior member of the faculty I feel it’s my duty to resist the neoliberal bureaucratization of the academy whenever I can.” Somehow, as he stared at my bust, he made it sound like a pick-up line.
I had worn one of Maggie’s floral prints, hoping to make an impression. It was working, but not in a good way. The scooped neckline was too low. When he eventually had enough of my boobs, he looked up and his leer turned into a frown. “I wouldn’t have recognized you.”
Shit. Had he been in on the interview? “I had this accident.”
“Yes, we heard. What an ordeal. You poor thing.”
“It kind of rearranged some things.” I circled my face with a finger.
“And your hair! Those lovely tresses.” I flinched as he reached toward my shoulder, as if to brush back my missing locks. “Almost pre-Raphaelite. Wasn’t Christina Rosetti the subject of your dissertation?”
Maybe? It didn’t ring a bell, though.
“That was one of the others,” Mrs. Anderson said before I could come up with a response that wouldn’t screw things up.
“Oh, the one who…” They exchanged glances. “Yes, of course. Ah well, no matter. You’ll only be teaching the young heathens basic writing, so poetry isn’t relevant, at least not these days. It’s all social justice and critical interpretation of comic books.” He winked and patted my shoulder in a lascivious-grandfather way before he passed down the hallway.
“Is he always like that?” I couldn’t help shrugging as if it would somehow shake off the creepy-crawly feeling of his touch.
“He’s old school,” she said, as if that explained it. Then she added, “Also, he knows the sexual harassment policy by heart and manages to stay just this far from getting in trouble.” She held up two fingers, the tips almost touching.
“Quite a skill.”
“He’s had decades of practice.”
Since she seemed to be thawing I asked “What did he mean, ‘the one who’?”
“You think you’re the only one who applied?” The frost was back. “I had to manage the files, nearly three hundred applications. All that, just for a visiting position.”
“Sorry.” Why was I apologizing to her?
“The other one turned us down. What a hassle. It’s not just English. I handle History, Philosophy, and Foreign Languages, too. History’s the worst. Four hundred and twenty applicants! CVs, teaching statements, research agenda, letters of reference, transcripts, all of it. If they used a modern HR system it wouldn’t be so bad, but I have to keep the files in order and handle all the correspondence. ‘Thanks for your application. No, we haven’t decided yet. No, we still haven’t decided. Guess what, you didn’t get the job,’ times four hundred. It’s not easy.”
Not my fault, lady. “Maybe you could point me toward my office.” I gave her a sweet Maggie smile.
“Two ten. Go down past History and Foreign Languages. You’ll be sharing with the other adjuncts.” She waited until I made it all the way down the hall, found the door and tried to open it, before she called out, “You have to go to Security to get your keys.” I limped back up the corridor. “Didn’t they put that in the orientation folder?” she complained.
“I lost some stuff in the accident.”
She rolled her eyes. How careless of me. “Wait.” After ducking back into her lair, she returned with a sheet of paper. A campus map. “Security is in the basement of this dorm. They’ll handle your keys and parking permit. Go to dining services for your ID.” She took a pen that was nested in her Brillo-hair and marked the spot. “You need it to get into events and use the library. The IT department is in Bjelland Hall.” She jabbed at the map. “They’ll explain how to get your courses loaded on Moodle, that’s not my job. I’ve added you to the all-department email alias. There’s a department meeting coming up. Make sure those messages don’t go into the spam folder.”
“Oh, by the way, whatever Peter says, don’t expect me to run copies for you. I don’t have time. Once the students are back, I might have a work-study student who can do that if you plan ahead, but it all goes on your account, and I keep an eye on who’s abusing the department budget. Just put everything online so the students are the ones who have to pay to print it.”
I almost said “that doesn’t seem fair when they’re already paying tuition,” but was smart enough to keep it to myself. I took the map from her and gave her another saccharine smile. “Thanks for all this. I really appreciate it. You’ve been so helpful.” If she detected any sarcasm in my words, she didn’t show it.
I plodded around campus, turning Maggie into an official employee, all the while feeling a little off kilter. Even though I had been exhausted from the long bus trip to Mitagomee, I hadn’t slept well. After a run to the grocery store with Dr. Mishkin, who spent most of the time complaining about the poor quality and limited selection of food compared to the Russian enclave in New York where she’d lived decades ago, I made us a simple supper of mushroom and spinach omelets. She turned in early, and so did I.
Having a full belly had made me drowsy enough to start drifting off, comfy under a white sprigged bedspread in a bed that had saggy bits that probably were shaped to Lara’s adolescent body. The guest room had been her childhood bedroom, though there wasn’t much left to show for it apart from a shelf of schoolbooks and some old shoes in the closet. Though it was spare, the space tucked up under the eaves felt safe and comfortable. Through the open windows I could hear wind rustling through the trees and the chirping and whirring of crickets and cicadas.
But as happened all too often, a stray thought intruded just as I was dropping off that yanked me out of my drowsiness.
I couldn’t get to sleep for hours, debating with myself whether I should stay in this comfortable place or leave in the morning, make my excuses and erase my tracks behind me. Had those prickly feelings that made me ready to leave my coffee shop job at the first opportunity been early warning signals that I’d been found, or was that just my paranoia working overtime? Should I hopscotch a couple of identities before letting down my guard, or was it safe to be Maggie and stay put for a little while, at least until I cashed a couple of paychecks and had enough time to plan my next moves? I liked having this little room of my own and, even if Anna Mishkin seemed a little grumpy and opinionated, I enjoyed her company. She wasn’t too nosy, not in ways that mattered, and I could use a few weeks to rest up and get my strength back, or at least lose the bruises that made me all too identifiable.
I lay awake in the dark and tried to do a straightforward risk assessment, but all I had were open questions. I was certain they would track down Amber Grace Schultz with her minimum wage job and lousy apartment at some point, and possibly already had, but would the trail stop with her? Surely they would look into the woman who was with her when she died, if only to tie off any loose ends. They wouldn’t be as gullible as the accident investigators who had jumped to conclusions and then took my word for it that they’d identified the dead woman accurately.
I couldn’t sleep until I outlined a plan. One: I would cash Lara’s check tomorrow and keep a watchful eye out for any signs of trouble. Two: I would devise some way of leaving Mitagomee fast without leaving a trace, but if nothing spooked me I would postpone it until I collected my first month’s wages from the college. Three: I would reassess and make a decision then.
With that settled, I took a dogeared copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles off the bookshelf and bored myself to sleep, giving me barely enough rest to take on my first day of college life.
When I returned to the second floor office with my activated keycard, it turned out I didn’t need it. The door was ajar, and I heard voices inside. Two of them, a man and a women. I eavesdropped long enough to peg them as legit college employees. As I entered I saw the woman had claimed the desk near the window and had staked out her territory by piling papers on the windowsill, filling nearly all of the shelves that lined one wall with her books and folders, and laying claim to the best chairs, the one she was sitting in while the other was reserved with a pile of files and a massive leather bag. “I need to keep my books here,” she told us preemptively. “I have such a long commute, I plan do most of my research on campus. Besides, my advanced students will need to consult them, given the meager resources available at the library.”
“I don’t need much room.” The man, who was pulling a few books from his backpack, was tanned and skinny with the wiry-but-muscular build of a long distance runner. He straightened the stack of books on one corner of a battered metal desk that probably was as old as the building. “You joining us?”
“Guess so,” I said, resolving to spend as little time in this claustrophobic room as possible. According to the course handouts Maggie had already drafted, I would hold office hours here six hours a week. I’d had to look it up: office hours were a period of time set aside for meeting students who never showed up but who would instead send an email in the middle of the night expecting an instant response. I knocked her six hours down to one.
Maggie had also included a paragraph about “conferencing” with students regularly to discuss their papers, but I wasn’t sure what that was about, or how it would work in this cramped room. The only unoccupied desk—my desk by default—was half hidden behind the door. There was barely room for my chair, let alone space for a student.
I would have preferred a spot by the window, or at least one that offered a view of anyone approaching down the hall. The only desk that would do had been claimed by the lanky man, who was grasping its edge and trying to scoot his chair in. It seemed to have a wonky wheel. “Can’t steer this thing.”
“Want to trade desks?”
“No thanks, I’m good,” he said quickly. When he tilted the chair to examine it, two of the wheels fell off.
“Typical,” the woman sighed. “I taught here last year. Nothing ever gets fixed.”
“Can I make a suggestion?” I said. “If we put that file cabinet in this corner and moved our desks over there and there…” It took a while to get them on board, but with some heavy lifting, a little swearing, and a running commentary from The Sighing Woman, the man had secured rights to a portion of the bookshelves, which made him happy, and I had a chance to sit with my back to the wall, a view of the hallway, quick access to the back stairwell, and less worry about being trapped.
In my visit to IT I had insisted my directory information on the campus website would be set to private and, instead of a headshot, my avatar would be a generic silhouette. But the name Maggie Farnham, office location, and campus email address were public by default, which could theoretically give the word “headshot” a different definition.
Another reason to spend as little time in this room as possible.
As we moved furniture we introduced ourselves. The Sighing Woman was Dr. Harriet Beasley, professor of romance languages. Her research area was modern and contemporary Lusophone literature, which sounded like a brass band instrument, but before I embarrassed myself asking about it I figured out from the titles on her bookshelves that it was a fancy word for Portuguese. Apparently there wasn’t much demand for Portuguese at Magnusson, so she taught Spanish instead. She told us she had proposed a stimulating seminar on twentieth century Brazilian literature in translation but alas, it hadn’t filled, so she was stuck with three sections of intro and one of first semester intermediate. I could tell she was the kind of person who would use words like “alas” a lot.
The man was a history teacher named Oak Larsson. “My parents were hippies,” he said apologetically. “They went with a nature theme. My sisters’ names are Willow and Amaryllis. They’re not too happy about it, but at least they’re not as weird as Oak.” He didn’t seem to really mind his name, or anything else, including the chair that lost its wheels whenever he lifted it, which made him laugh his head off every time it happened. I wasn’t sure I could put up with so much cheerfulness. Maybe between crabby Harriet Beasley and laid-back Oak Larsson it would balance out.
I had just started exploring the systems I was supposed to use for courses on the hand-me-down Windows laptop IT had signed out to me when Oak pulled a shiny new MacBook Pro out of his backpack. “Whoa, jealous. How’d you get that?”
He did a game show hostess impression, showing it off while relating its technical specs, before adding “I bought it myself. I don’t want to have to use junk like that piece of crap they gave you.”
“Neither do I. A twenty-seven inch?”
“Eat your heart out. I do a lot of digital humanities assignments in my classes, and since I’ve been teaching at so many different schools, it doesn’t make sense to rely on their junk. Spent the summer on a roofing crew so I could splash out for a tool I’ll use every day. As a bonus, I got to brush up on my Spanish.”
Harriet Beasley sniffed. Not the right kind of Spanish, apparently.
I spent an hour figuring out Moodle, the platform we had to use to post schedules and assignments for our courses, then wrote up a guide since all of my students would be first-semester freshmen. They would be at least as confused as I was and the official documentation seemed to have been put through a bad translation engine. Then I spent nearly an hour figuring out the kinks of sending documents to the department’s shared printer that also made copies, except that it didn’t because the paper was being rationed by Mrs. Anderson. After I redesigned my handout to make it a single double-sided page and coaxed her to give me enough paper to run copies for the 68 students enrolled in my courses (I had to point out you can’t expect them to get into the system to print it themselves if they can’t get into the system), it jammed so badly she had to call the office that managed copiers and report a malfunction. Which might be repaired before classes started. Or not. She wasn’t encouraging about the situation.
“She’s a dragon,” Beasley said with a characteristic sniff.
“You think so?” Oak seemed genuinely surprised.
“I think she’s scary,” I said, wondering how to solve the copy problem. “Is there a Kinkos in town?”
Beasley snickered. “This town?”
“Don’t be silly.” Oak rolled back from his desk to face us, then paused and glanced under his seat to make sure the wheels weren’t about to fall off again. “Adjuncts shouldn’t pay for copies and no, there isn’t a Kinkos.”
“Or a Starbucks, or a Whole Foods,” Beasley added sourly. “Or a bookstore that isn’t entirely devoted to campus-branded gear and two-hundred-dollar textbooks.”
“Don’t be intimidated by Shirley,” he said to me. “She’s great. She knows everything about this place, and she doesn’t sugar coat anything.”
“Never sugar. She uses arsenic,” Beasley muttered.
I squinted at Oak. “Shirley? You get away with calling her by her first name?”
“Sure. Look, I’ve taught at seven different schools.” He paused, thinking. “No, eight, counting Magnusson. The first rule is you make friends with the admin assistant. Sure, don’t piss off your chair, that’s a given, but the real source of power is the person who knows all the budget lines and who to call with a question and how to fix it when you lost your password for the Banner system and—”
“The which system?”
“The one that you use to see your rosters and submit your grades. Didn’t you get your orientation packet?”
“I was in a car accident. I lost a lot of stuff.”
“Ah, is that why… Well, here, borrow mine.” He burrowed into his backpack and brought out a bulging folder, stamped with a logo that involved small mammals, a heraldic shield, and a slogan in Latin. “Lot of good stuff in there.”
Beasley sniffed, or was that a stifled laugh? I felt drained all of a sudden. “I think I’ll take it home to read through it, if that’s okay.”
“Sure. You look done in. Are you going to be okay to teach next week?”
“Guess I’ll have to be.” I smiled bravely, Maggie style.
“Hey, before you go—I was going to grab a beer at Bosco’s tonight. Want to join me? Say, seven?” He looked at both of us.
“Maybe?” I said, remembering that name. A bar on Main Street, dark and sinister, the kind of tavern that emitted a waft of ancient cigarette smoke and mildew every time the door opened.
“The Nighthawk is the student bar,” he added. “Bosco’s is old school. Full of local character, and blessedly free of students.”
“I have revisions due for an article,” Beasley said. “But if I make progress, I may just reward myself with a glass of wine.” She gave us an imperious nod, as if the real reward would be the gift of her presence.
I walked home, headed up to my bedroom to read the packet of college info, and fell asleep.