“I had the weirdest nightmare,” I told Dr. Mishkin as I poured her a cup of coffee at breakfast. She looked up from her newspaper. “I was teaching my course, but for some reason it was happening in my bedroom. Well, Lara’s bedroom. I wasn’t dressed yet, and I didn’t have anything prepared.”
“Pfft. This is the first day of classes. Everyone has a dream like that.”
“Really? Even you?”
“Not anymore. I still have nightmares about endless faculty meetings, though. Pass the butter.”
“Here you go. Say, did you take your pills?”
“Of course. Nag, nag, nag. You treat me like one of your freshman students.” She shook her weekly pill box at me like a wagging finger. “I am a grown-up, you know. What day is it?”
She clicked open the lid for her Monday pills, and swallowed them before hiding the pill box under some newspapers, pretending it had never happened.
“I’ll probably stay on campus all day. There’s some soup you can reheat for lunch. Or I could put a sandwich together if you prefer.” She harrumphed as she scraped more butter onto her toast. “I left my cell number beside the phone in case—”
She pointed the butter knife at me. “I am a capable adult. Do not infantilize me.”
“I find cooking and dusting tedious, so you may do it, even though there is no point to dusting. But I will not allow you to invade my life. Is that clear?”
“Stop repeating yourself.” She took a bite of toast and a sip of coffee before shaking the paper and holding it up in front of her. I knew by now she was not a morning person, and she wasn’t going to make an exception just to calm my jangled nerves. I washed my dishes, put the milk back in the refrigerator, and picked up my bag. “Guess I’m off, then. Unless you’d like me to make you more toast?”
“Go away,” she said from behind the paper.
The first two weeks of the term passed in a blur, but I started to get the hang of things. Class meetings happened three days a week. I used the days in between to respond to homework and answer a deluge of emails, all of which took more time and energy than I ever expected. Students asked to meet me to talk about assignments or argue over a grade, but somehow they never could make it during my one scheduled office hour, so I used that time for a gossip-and-advice session with Oak, who had somehow squeezed a cast-off couch and a coffee maker into our office to make it a comfortable nest.
Maggie’s detailed syllabus was a sanity saver. I was able to soak up most of the fifty-minute class periods by putting students into groups to discuss questions she had already concocted or to critique each other’s writing assignments. Spending most of their time talking to each other instead of me actually teaching didn’t seem a fair deal, given what they paid in tuition, but the students didn’t seem to mind. They were even excited about the podcast project.
I was still having trouble with names, though. A few of them were easy to remember: Abeba, who grew up in St. Paul but whose parents were from Ethiopia, and Bilan from Somalia who spent her early years in a refugee camp. Liv, who announced on day one they used they/them pronouns, had hair even shorter than mine, and an impressive collection of vintage Doc Martens. Jamal, a football player who had been recruited from Chicago and seemed in a constant state of dazed culture shock, kind of like me. And poor Luis, who had been valedictorian at some underfunded rural school; his confidence was shaken by the challenge of college-level work. Nearly all of the students had the same trouble with subject-verb agreement and eccentric punctuation, but he was used to being a star student and he missed his family something awful.
One student blended into the rest, her voice an indistinguishable note in the bird-chatter as the students settled into their seats—until she handed in her first essay. They had to hand one in every Monday responding to questions Maggie had helpfully queued up for me, and then hand in a revision responding to my comments on Friday. Most of the results were painfully bad, so bad I quickly learned to set a timer so I didn’t devote five times the effort to grading than they spent dashing off the damn things, but Sidonie’s were in a class apart. Even Maggie wouldn’t have had a thing to teach her.
The rest of the students were virtually indistinguishable, not just in what they handed in but how they looked. White and mostly blond, with the same hair styles and ball caps and names that I couldn’t match to faces. There were three Emmas, four Madisons, two Jacobs, and a gaggle of girls named Kristen or Kirsten. I couldn’t keep them all straight. I did my best to guess and they were good sports about it, their habitual niceness part of their sameness.
Then there was Michael Knutson, who fit the Scandinavian-American mold except he wasn’t nice, which made him easy to remember but hard to take. Being not nice was apparently his brand. In addition to being an officer in the Investment Club and vice-president of the Magnusson Libertarians, he was the local point man for a national organization that trained college students for leadership positions in the rightest of right-wing national politics. He was always looking for opportunities to use his debate skills to take down the other students, who mostly retreated in confusion and private eye-rolls because niceness doesn’t prepare you to confront ideologically-driven bullies. He was for free speech, against wokeness, and a complete asshole.
He was also the son of a member of the board of trustees, as my department chair made a point of letting me know the day classes started. Without saying it in so many words, I got the message: Don’t piss him off.
At least he was a competent writer, which was a piece of luck. He followed assignment directions closely enough that his arguments were well organized and didn’t rely entirely on extremist YouTube pundits. Though he was disruptive in class discussions and gleefully irritated the more politically involved students in his section of Comp 101, he turned in his homework on time and scored well on his first graded assignment. That was a relief. I didn’t need to be trolled by a social-media savvy hothead who liked to complain about all the radical professors who were grading him unfairly due to his political beliefs.
Oak found himself in the crosshairs, though. Michael Knutson was enrolled in his American History I course. On day one, he challenged everything on the syllabus, from the readings to the assignments, as being leftist propaganda. The study of American history, he told the class, should celebrate the country’s great accomplishments, its roots in Judeo-Christian values, and the wisdom of its founders, whose slaves were all well-cared for and obviously better off for being relocated from shithole countries to the finest nation in the world.
“There’s always a knucklehead,” Oak said philosophically, pouring me a cup of coffee during my otherwise unclaimed office hour.
“His dad’s on the board of trustees.”
“Believe me, he made sure I was aware of that.”
“He’s making a list of professors who discriminate against conservatives.”
“If I don’t make that list I’ll be so bummed.”
“He could get you fired.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret.” He leaned close, eying Beasley who was at her desk, scattering red ink on a pile of homework, pausing only to tut-tut and sigh. “I don’t give a shit.”
“But you might not get any courses next term. It could affect your career.”
“Can you call it a career when I’m paid a few thousand bucks per course? That’s poverty wages. I like history, and I love working with students, but I could make a better living restoring old houses. I know a guy who wants to take me on full time.”
“The only Plan B I have is being a barista.”
“That would be difficult in a town with no coffee shop,” Beasley chipped in before stabbing at another paper with her red pen. “The diner doesn’t count. Their coffee is dreadful.”
Oak tipped his chair back, then laughed when, as usual, one of the wheels fell off. “You sure about that? Teaching isn’t the only thing you can do with a PhD in English. What about technical writing? If you can explain Moodle so clearly to eighteen-year-olds, you obviously have the skills, and I’ll bet those giant tech companies pay well.”
“They pay engineers well, not contract workers doing the grunt work.”
“It’s got to be better than what places like this offer, though.”
No, it didn’t, for so many reasons. Besides, I was Maggie now, living her dream. “This was my ideal job. A liberal arts college. Also, benefits and an office.”
“Such as it is,” Beasley remarked dryly.
Oak got out of his chair to slot the wheel into place, then sat back down. “I mean, seriously. This is ideal?”
“The pay’s better than when I was a barista scrounging for tips, and it’s more fun.”
“Two weeks ago you were weren’t so excited about teaching. Now things seem to be going great, apart from Michael Knutson.”
“I still don’t know what I’m doing, but at least the podcast project is keeping them busy. They’re really getting into researching college history. We’ve been to the archives twice. Zoe Chen has been super helpful.”
“She’s been great with the digital projects my course is working on. Are you sure you don’t want to make it a live podcast? The alumni office would love it.”
“So would the students. They keep begging me, but that’s a big fat nope.”
“I still think having an authentic audience is a great motivator.”
“Authentic audience? You really think there is such a thing when the whole internet has been turned into a surveillance tool and a persuasion machine? When some loud-mouthed lunatic influencer can mobilize their fans to mob whoever they designate an enemy for fun and profit? What’s authentic about that?”
“Sounds like you had a bad experience—”
“It’s not that. I haven’t been personally targeted. I rarely use social media. When I went through that exercise with them, the privacy one we developed? It was clear they have no idea how surveillance capitalism works, though I saw some lightbulbs go off.” Not many. Maybe none, but that wasn’t going to change my mind. “I just think it’s a bad idea for students to put work out in public when it’s half-baked.”
“Half-baked? You exaggerate,” Beasley said, putting down her pen and rubbing her wrist. “It’s practically raw. I blame the admissions office. I’ve never seen a group of new students so unable to grasp the simplest nuances of plurals and pronouns. I’m not sure if it’s stupidity or laziness.” She stared at clouds through the window, deep in thought, before concluding, “probably both.”
Between classes, I took a walk through the campus. During my first days in Mitagomee, I was too anxious and bruised to take a walk just for fun, but my limp had improved and I needed to recover some muscle strength after three weeks in the hospital spent mostly in bed. Those daily excursions up and down the corridor, hanging onto an IV stand, didn’t do the job. I needed to build up more stamina, and I was finally beginning to feel less like a trespasser who might be caught out as a fraud at any moment. It felt good to stroll through a place that looked like a well-kept park or the grounds of an historic estate. But it also felt incredibly strange.
My one semester of college was in a building that looked like the headquarters of an insurance company. This was more like the university scene I knew from Bates College, where in high school I would hang out, trying to look cool, trying to pass as a student among the green lawns and white pillars, though I didn’t have the grades or the money to even dream about it. Magnusson was not as historic as Bates, and not nearly as exclusive. The students in my classes came from small towns or the Minneapolis metro. They all seemed to have work-study jobs in the cafeteria or grounds crew as part of their financial aid, and their easy-going Midwestern style lacked New England’s extreme class consciousness, except maybe when it came to athletic shoe brands.
But even with its relatively modest pretentions, on a sunny autumn afternoon it managed to look like the set of a Hollywood campus, with wide lawns, shady groves of old trees, red brick buildings with Gothic arches, and a wooded path that wound around a small lake. The humanities building might be ugly and in need of repair, but it was surrounded by a landscape that made people feel special. Beasley complained about the college putting money into landscaping instead of faculty salaries, but I could see the appeal as I strolled along the lakeside path.
A gang of barely-clad young men jogged past. A woman sat on a rock beside the water with a sketch pad. A sunburned girl sprawled out on the grass among friends waved. “Hiyah, Maggie!” One of the Kristens, unless it was a Kirsten. I waved back and strolled on. It felt weird, being here, seeming to belong, even though I knew I didn’t.
Maggie wouldn’t feel weird. She would have loved every minute of it.
After class one afternoon I went to the department office to check my mailbox. It was at the far end of a set of cubbyholes with faculty names taped to them. (Mine was the last, thick with layers of previous names taped there, a slot reserved for temps like me.) As usual, it was a pile of junk. A mass-mailing from the bookstore about textbook adoptions for spring, a flyer advertising a lecture, a random ad for an obscure journal with the suggestion I recommend it to the library, a memo from the library announcing they had to cut journal subscriptions again due to budget cuts. Nothing important, and it never was, yet something compelled me to check every day that I was on campus. I was half-expecting a letter to show up from someone who knew the real Maggie, introducing a tremor in my situation that would launch an avalanche of questions and discoveries. As I sorted through it, my heart still beating a little too fast, I felt something, a subtle change in the air, a barometric drop, that gave me the distinct sensation of being cornered.
“Maggie! How are you, my dear?” I turned to find myself hemmed in by the randy old goat of a professor, Peter Van Meter, standing far too close. I was trapped between the mailboxes and a table where a work-study student was assembling and stapling papers languidly. He grasped my situation and rolled his eyes. Professor Perv, at it again. “Settling in? Getting you sea legs in the classroom?” His voice seemed to leave something oily on my skin.
“Yes, thanks.” I dumped my mail into a recycling bin and made a gesture as if to squeeze past him, but he was oblivious and smiled serenely at my boobs.
“Freshmen are so needy. If you ever need to chat, or a shoulder to cry on, my office is just across the hall.” He leaned even closer and whispered. “I can even offer you a glass of rather decent sherry.” He tapped the side of his nose. Our little secret.
Another elderly professor arrived to scoop up her mail. She waved the library’s memo like a terrier with a rat. “Did you see this, Peter? Cutting our journals again.”
He turned to commiserate and I saw my chance. “’Scuse me. Can I get by?”
They didn’t seem to hear me, keeping me wedged in the corner. “This college has no regard for the humanities at all,” she went on. “No wonder our society has become so ignorant and susceptible to social media and those, those… what do you call them? Algorithms.” She wiggled fingers in the air and adjusted her gauzy scarf before unfolding another mailing. Apparently she was going to read all of her mail out loud, with commentary. “They want our course adoptions for spring already? Ridiculous. It didn’t used to be like this, so bureaucratized.” She ripped open an envelope and frowned. “Why do they keep sending me these announcements for digital humanities conferences? It’s hardly my area.”
“Perhaps our younger colleague would be interested,” Van Meter turned to pat me on the shoulder. “Have you met Maggie? She has four sections of 101 this fall.”
“You poor dear.” She peered at me over her half-moon reading glasses.
“They’re making podcasts, I hear,” he said approvingly, massaging my shoulder.
I swiveled to extend a hand to her, and to dislodge his. “Nice to meet you.”
“Rebecca Tolliver, early modern.” She brushed her fingers across my palm, then handed me the mail she didn’t want. “Podcasts? How trendy. This could be just the thing for you.”
I glanced at it. The registration fee was $350. “Uh, does the department pay for it?”
They laughed. “Not the department. The provost’s office manages the travel fund,” she said. “Such as it is, never enough to pay the actual costs, of course.”
“Maggie’s an adjunct,” Van Meter said under his breath as if mentioning an embarrassing disability.
“Oh, of course. Then no, there’s no funding as such.”
“It’s in Vancouver.” I did the arithmetic in my head. Airfare, hotel, plus over three hundred bucks just for the conference. Not to mention I didn’t have a passport and no intention of submitting myself to high-tech border security. “Can’t afford it. Thanks, anyway.”
She wouldn’t take it back. “But it’s an investment in your career. You need to get out there, make connections.”
“You could submit a proposal to talk about your podcasts. It would look great on your CV,” Van Meter clasped his hands, pleased with himself. They were serious. Seriously clueless. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. They looked mystified and a little offended.
This wasn’t the first time that I felt worlds collide, when I realized I was the only person in the room who wasn’t rich, except maybe the student stapling papers and eavesdropping. When I started at my first professional position, someone would ask about my weekend plans and drop that they were flying to Aruba for friend’s wedding. There’d be a casual invitation to get dinner at a five-star restaurant that just got reviewed in The New York Times.
At that job, my starting salary was many times what I was earning now, in an office with expensive ergonomic furniture and free food—and a pervasive feeling that people I worked with came from a parallel universe. Or that I had accidentally stumbled into their universe with no idea how to adjust to its fundamental laws. It felt that way now, though I wasn’t alone. Oak and Beasley were in the same underclass as me, even though Beasley pretended not to be.
“If you’re serious about an academic career, you need to make sacrifices,” the woman said sternly. “Perhaps your parents could loan you the money?”
“They’re dead.” I wasn’t sure Maggie would have said it so bluntly, but then again, maybe she would.
The woman tilted her head and gave me a sympathetic purse of the lips, her palm spread across her chest. “How tragic.”
“I’m so sorry, Maggie,” Van Meter murmured, using the opportunity to wrap an arm around me and crush me to his chest. That was the last straw.
“Dude, back off!” I pushed him away.
He took a step back and raised his hands. “Sorry, sorry. I simply meant to give you moral support. No untoward intentions.”
There was something about his practiced moves that made me think he had been here before and knew exactly how to seize the high ground. “It’s not okay to touch people like that.”
“Don’t do that again.”
“I’m sorry you’re upset.”
“You should be sorry you keep staring at my boobs.”
The student working at the table behind him snickered. Van Meter colored.
“You need to get with the times, Peter,” the woman said, patting his arm. “She’s right, you have to be more careful, you’ll get yourself in trouble.”
I had to work at it to unclench my hands and toss the crumpled conference announcement into the recycling bin. “I have to meet with a student.” I said, “Excuse me.” They parted and let me through, Dr. Perv making an exaggerated effort to flatten himself against the mailboxes, his hands still raised in a “don’t shoot” gesture. Shirley, the admin assistant, gave me a covert thumbs up as I left. But I had the distinct impression from the expression that flashed across Van Meter’s face, hearing the student laugh out loud, that I’d made an enemy.
The message came during my fourth class meeting on a Wednesday.
I was checking email while the students worked in their groups, their chairs pulled into clusters in each corner of the room. I had let them choose their own teams, which meant one corner had a group of academic nerds who were earnestly discussing their assignment while the one in the back was giggling at a TikTok that one of them was showing the others. The group with a bossy high achiever was quiet as she filled out the assignment sheet by herself while her teammates looked at their phones. The one that had coalesced around up-and-coming campus firebrand Michael Knutson was busy plotting something. At least, that’s what it looked like, though maybe they were just on task.
I scrolled through my emails. A faculty meeting agenda, a survey from the curriculum committee, both nuked. A question from a student in another section that was answered in the syllabus. Link and a reminder to check the syllabus sent. A sales pitch from a company that was sure I would want to force my students to feed their papers into their plagiarism-detection system to prevent cheating. Spyware for educators, tagged as spam. A vaguely threatening message from the college president, couched in high-minded mission-speak, asking employees to prove their school spirit and employability by making a donation to the new capital campaign. Fat chance.
Then I froze as I saw the next email’s subject line: Looking for Emily Callander.
The students’ voices became a wordless chattering sound outside a chamber that locked itself around me like an invisible glass globe. The classroom itself, with its florescent light fixtures, was on the other side of the glass, in a different dimension. Inside the globe, a force squeeze me in a full-body grip, an icy fist clenching me tight. It was cold inside that globe, and hard to breathe.
Something was tapping on the outside. The tapping sound turned hard and crisp, coalescing into words spoken by someone just outside the glass. “Doctor Farnham? Maggie?” It was like that nightmare I had told Dr. Mishkin about, only instead of being in my bedroom we were in a classroom drawn in wavering doubled lines, everything tilted strangely, warped. The glass globe dissolved, then, the lines joined together, and the blunt syllables turned into words that began to make sense.
“You okay?” The student in front of my desk looked scared
“Fine. I’m fine.” I took a breath, my head swimming. I took another breath, remembering to hold it in before releasing it, Breathe again, release.
My pausing for a moment of Zen didn’t reassure him. “Should I call 911?”
“No.” That didn’t help anything, it came out too loud. By this time my vision had cleared and I could see the faces of students who seemed to be thinking yeah, for sure, call 911. Another deep breath and then a smile. “I’m okay, really. I just got a weird email. It spooked me, that’s all. I’m going to delete it.” I made a show of bringing my finger down on the delete key. “There. Done. Sorry about that. What were you…” I managed to snatch a drifting bit of meaning that had been floating outside the globe before I came back to myself. “You’re wondering about the third question, right? It’s just meant to help your group get on the same page.”
“Okay?” He said it like a question.
“All you’re doing is writing an elevator pitch.” He nodded as his face went blank, the kind of neutral mask you wear when you don’t want to look stupid. “Like, imagine you just got into an elevator with the head of the public radio station. This is your chance to pitch your idea for a podcast. She hits a button for the eighth floor. That’s all the time you have to explain your idea, the amount of time it takes to get to the eighth floor. Something concise and compelling. Make sense?”
“Right.” He nodded.
What was his name, Adam? No, this was Steve. Maybe. I closed my laptop, trapping the weird email message inside for now, then stood to face the class. “Did you all get that? Convince me to give you the green light for an episode of Curious Campus, not that I’m a real podcast producer.”
“Not that it’s even a real podcast,” one of the Emmas said, then waved her hands theatrically. “And that’s fine! We know, we know!” causing some nervous chuckles around the room. She was smoothing an awkward moment over, genially mocking my earlier rant about why we weren’t going public.
“It’s a pretend green light,” Liv said, inspecting their purple fingernails.
“Let me come around and see how you’re all doing,” I said, and strolled over to Ben’s group, getting some distance from the email that was safely locked away, a letter bomb that had been temporarily secured so it couldn’t detonate in a public place. It would have to be disarmed, but not here, not now.
I let the students’ urgent concerns take over. They weren’t done with their research yet, how could they know what their main point would be? How would they even have a main point when all they were doing was interviewing people who all had different things to say? Was it too late to change their topic?
Only Michael Knutson’s group had no questions. “No problem. We got this,” he said. I looked over the shoulder of the boy who had been designated the group’s secretary. He had downloaded the assignment sheet and filled out the three questions. Unlike the scrawled word salad of the other groups (except for the TikTok one, which hadn’t written anything) these answers were full sentences, even correctly punctuated, as if taken down in dictation. Knutson was not only obviously in charge of his group, he was all set for a world where he there would always be someone else to do the secretarial work.
His father is on the board of trustees. I heard the warning in the voice of my boss. I was going to have to tread carefully, and that meant I couldn’t show my visceral response to self-important guys like him. I called up a sweet Maggie smile, wondering if it passed muster as the kind of niceness people expected around here. Syrupy, but not poured on so thick that it was transformed into irony. “Good work. You’re ahead of the game.”
“We already scheduled all our interviews,” one of Knutson’s minions told me smugly.
“Awesome. Did you manage a pretty representative sample?”
“Four departments with an equal gender balance, plus someone in admissions who’s gay. We also got the head of the Diversity Center, so we have a person of color. Is that enough representation for you?”
I ignored the implied put-down. “Great, but things happen, people don’t always come through. Have a second list of likely candidates you can call if need be.”
“We also have a student survey developed,” another member of the group said. Was he one of the Jasons? “We’ll be beta testing it this week and rolling it out over the weekend.”
“An online survey?”
“Nope, we’ll randomly sample students at the caff and ask them the questions in person. My marketing prof said it would get better results.”
“Sounds like a plan. Your answer to question three—it’s very well stated, but a little unfocused. Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.”
Knutson practically elevated in his seat with pleasure. He was used to being Satan’s lead attorney, and was itching to parry whatever I might say. He even flexed his fingers, as if he were about to crack his knuckles but decided to avoid a cliché. “Sure. We’re always open to ideas.”
“’Free speech on campus’ is a huge topic. You have to narrow it down. What kind of framing do you plan to use?”
Knutson nodded to a loyal lieutenant, one who was apparently filling the role of press spokesman. “We want to focus on the tension between the spirit of the first amendment and the speech restrictions posed by multiculturalism as it’s promoted on college campuses,” he said. “Using examples from this college.”
“Okay. Just watch out for creating straw men. You don’t want to paint ‘multiculturalism’ with too broad a brush.”
“You don’t think it’s already graffitied all over campus in a broad brush?” Knutson said. “There’s a banner up in the admissions office quoting Malcolm X.”
“Just saying. They could have quoted Martin Luther King, something inspirational, but they chose a radical Black Muslim.”
I checked myself before contradicting him. Board of trustees, father, watch it. “All right, but remember when we talked about approaching the project with an open mind? You don’t want to go into these interviews with an agenda, you want to listen and be willing to learn. Who knows, maybe you’ll think differently after you talk to people.” Knutson’s patient little smirk suggested that was totally naïve on my part. “What kind of background research have you done so far? Remember, that will all be in your show notes. Picking high-quality sources is a major part of the grade.”
“We’ve divvied it up.” He used a pricey Mont Blanc pen to point at his group members. “Mick is covering local history. Charlie is looking at current intellectual thought on the topic. Jase is developing biographical sketches for our interview subjects. I’m doing the Constitutional analysis.”
“He’s pre-law,” Charlie said proudly. Look who we have on our side.
“You don’t have to worry about us,” Knutson said. “We have a strong team.” His adjutants beamed with pride. “You might want to have a word with those girls, though. Excuse me, those women.” Pointing his Mont Blanc at the TikTok group he lowered his voice. “They’ve been a little distracted.”
Masking my urge to smash his smug misogynistic face, I smiled as if I were grateful for his advice. “Maybe they just got done early.” They hadn’t, of course, but one of them quickly scribbled some stuff down as I moved across the classroom to check on their progress. At least the girl filling in the form had neat handwriting.
The period ended, as usual, with a sudden restlessness sweeping the room like a gust of wind. The clock on the wall was stuck permanently at half past nine, but they all knew almost by instinct when the fifty minutes ended. As if synchronized, students slapped laptops shut, gathered their things, and started talking differently, their voices louder, looser, more raucous. They shoved their circled chairs back into ragged rows and joined the great migration streaming through the hall as they moved to their next class or wherever they were headed. I shrugged on my jacket and picked up my laptop to slot it gingerly into my bag, knowing there was something in there ready to detonate.
I turned. Liv and a girl whose name I couldn’t remember were standing side by side in the no-man’s-land between the untidy first row and the instructor’s desk where students typically lined up to petition for extensions or argue they deserved an A on that C+ assignment. I wasn’t in the mood for it. “Yes?”
They looked at each other. “We just wanted to check in. Are you okay?”
What were they up to? “I’m fine,” I snapped.
My tone made the girl who’d asked fall silent, so Liv took the lead. “It looked like you were going to pass out.”
The other girl added, “And since you had that accident, we thought maybe—”
“I’m over the accident,” I said firmly. “It was just a strange email.”
“Is somebody harassing you?” Liv asked, eyes narrowed. Gender-nonconforming warrior, ready to defend me with their chunky Doc Martens and purple nails.
“No. It’s not from anyone I know.” I was beginning to realize they were genuinely concerned. “It just weirded me out because it’s about a person I used to know. Someone who died a long time ago. Not a big deal, it just caught me by surprise.”
“Is there anything we can do?” the girl who wasn’t Liv asked.
They weren’t asking me for anything. They wanted to help. They lived in a world where things were simple enough that you could band together and defuse a problem with kindness. The confidence of youth—though in reality I wasn’t that much older than them, just far more jaded. “No, there isn’t. But thanks. Really. I appreciate your concern.”
“Sure.” They headed for the hallway. Before being swept away by the flood, Liv paused to add, “Don’t worry about that asshole Michael Fucking Knutson, either. We won’t let him push you around.” And they were gone.