“You are famous,” Dr. Mishkin remarked, showing me her copy of the Magnusson Messenger, with the headline across the top “Frosh Class Uncovers Racism in the Archives.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen. I told the student reporter who contacted me ‘no comment.’”
“And yet here is your name. One, two… three times. Dr. Maggie Farnham, smearing the college’s reputation with scandal and facts.” She tut-tutted, enjoying my discomfort.
“I should have listened to the department chair. He told me to drop that assignment and have students write a regular research paper.”
She scoffed. “Interfering with your teaching? Outrageous. Who is the chair now, David Parsons? Hah, that small-minded pedant. I was on a committee with him once, he’s afraid of his own shadow. Good for you, standing up to him.” She turned back to the paper and snorted. “Blackface. That will make the administration squirm. As for President Bjelland, it’s time that local hero was brought down to earth. He was so full of himself.“
“You knew him?”
“I knew everybody, though I haven’t kept up with the new faculty, they all look like students to me with their tattoos and extreme youth. Dr. Bjelland was already retired when I started teaching at Magnusson, but he held court every morning at a particular table in a corner of the cafeteria that was unofficially reserved for him and his apostles. When he finally died, so much pageantry. They practically canonized him. Yet in all these years, nobody bothered to look at his CV and discover he had fascist tendencies.” She started to chortle. She laughed so hard it turned into an uncontrollable cough. I ran to get her a glass of water.
She drank some water and coughed some more until she hawked up a loogie and spat it into a napkin. After inspecting it, she crumpled the napkin and dropped into an empty cup. “I thought it would be a nuisance having a lodger,” she said, patting her mouth with a fresh napkin. “But you’ve made things interesting.”
“Which is exactly what I don’t need.”
“Pfft. They won’t fire you. It would cause even more scandal.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
She gave me a sharp look, as if she had some special x-ray vision to see things I had kept hidden. “What is it that has you worried, then?”
For a moment I felt like telling her about Allie, about everything, but I just shook my head. “Nothing. I’m going for a walk.” I grabbed the jacket and scarf I’d bought at a second-hand store to supplement my skimpy wardrobe and left.
It was a crisp day, chilly enough to see my breath. Mitagomee was so small I passed decades of architectural history within a few blocks—frilly Victorian houses like Dr. Mishkin’s, though not as decrepit, four-square family homes with big porches, tidy little bungalows and, when the sidewalks ended, ranch houses that got bigger as their trees got smaller.
I came to the edge of town, where a recently-constructed complex of housing for the elderly was bordered by cornfields. Just down the road, conveniently enough, was the town cemetery, a hilly park-like area ringed by an old cast-iron fence, full of gnarled oak trees whose brown leaves murmured in the light breeze. The gates were open, so I wandered inside, aimlessly strolling past gravestones, some more than a century old, the names and dates weathered away, the newer ones decorated with sad bunches of deflated balloons, stuffed animals, small flags, or bunches of faded plastic flowers. It could have been depressing, but there was a stillness here that was calming. Time slowed, and my problems seemed to shrink in size, surrounded by all those dead people who’d probably had problems of their own, until they didn’t.
There was a stone chapel or mausoleum in the center of the graveyard. Facing it an old granite bench was decorated with carved vines and leaves, as if it had been overgrown by nature before being turned to stone. A girl sat there, hunched, hugging her knees. She was so still and pale she could have been made of stone, too.
She turned, my voice breaking the spell. Emotions chased across her face—dread, confusion, embarrassment. “Oh.” She forced her lips into a shape that was meant to be a smile. “Hi.”
“I’ve never been here before. Mind if I sit?”
She gave me a neutral “be my guest” shrug and hugged herself more tightly, though there was plenty of room. I sat at the other end of the bench, wondering if butts could suffer from frostbite. People sometimes had to have frostbitten fingers and toes amputated, but what would you do about a frostbitten behind? “I’m trying to get more walks in since my accident. I should go to the gym, but it’s so noisy in there, and it smells like old socks.” She gave a twitch of a smile, just to be polite.
“I missed getting an assignment from you this week,” I went on. “You have no idea how much your essays keep me from slitting my wrists.” D’oh, that was the wrong thing to say. She looked like someone who had been thinking about it. “I mean, not to dunk on them or anything, but it’s painful reading what the other students hand in. You have a real talent. Are you planning to be writer? I mean, you already are a writer, but professionally?”
“No, I want to be a nursing major. Well, that was the plan, but I’m not sure my grades will be good enough.”
“If communication skills count, you’ll be a shoo-in. Only you haven’t been in class lately. Which—you obviously don’t need anyone teaching you how to write, so I understand if you think the course is a waste of your time.”
“No, I like the class. And anyway, it’s required.”
I watched two squirrels chase each other, spiraling up a tree. “I don’t want to get up in your business, but is there something going on? Anything I can help with?”
“No. I just have to figure some stuff out.”
“Okay.” My butt felt as if it were turning to stone as we sat silently side-by-side. Maybe we’d both become part of the bench like the vines and leaves, another feature of the peaceful landscape, two statues carved in granite. Leaves would fall on us, and then snow, and after a while moss would grow on our arms and bird crap would spatter on our shoulders. A crow landed on the peak of the structure in front of us, cocking his head to check us out, maybe waiting to see if we’d make a good perch.
“I’m pregnant,” Sidonie said, breaking the silence.
“That’s a bummer.” It wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say, but its dorkiness seemed to give her permission to open up.
“It doesn’t feel real. I mean, I don’t even know the guy that well, we just… I was at this party in the first week and everybody was drinking and I didn’t want to look stupid so I did, too. And he was cute and we were both really blasted and it just happened.”
“I think I read there’s some sort of response team you can turn to when stuff like this happens.”
“It’s for sexual assault. That’s not what it was.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but—”
“No, I was just as into it as he was. It was stupid. So stupid. I can’t believe I let this happen. I haven’t told my parents yet.”
“Will they freak out?”
She gave a small, sad giggle. “Sure. I mean, my mom sends texts just about every day, and my dad keeps mailing me packages of things I don’t need. Like, batteries. He just sent a huge package of double-A batteries. What am I going to do with those? They still think of me as their little girl. And now I’m pregnant.” She bubbled with laughter as she brushed away tears. “What a mess.”
“Say, do you mind if we walk around while we talk? My butt’s frozen.”
“Sure. I’m kind of cold, too.” She said it as if she was surprised, even though her lips were practically blue.
“Have you been throwing up a lot?” I asked as we set out.
“You mean like morning sickness? No, but coffee tastes awful and I haven’t felt like eating. I haven’t felt like doing much of anything, honestly, except sleep. I know I’ve been missing class. Sorry about that. It feels like I’m in a fog. I can’t make my mind up on anything. Even brushing my teeth is, like, a decision, you know?”
I steered us down a winding path, one that led us into an older section of the cemetery. It didn’t seem like a good idea to pass by too many sad teddy bears at the moment. “I know how that feels. I got pregnant when I was fifteen. But I was barfing, like, constantly. Morning, noon, and night sickness. My mom kicked me out as soon as she found out.”
“Wow. That’s harsh.”
“Yeah, well. We didn’t get along anyway, and her boyfriend du jour really didn’t like me, so I think it was kind of an excuse. To be fair, I was not easy to live with. We argued all the time. Big screaming arguments over dumb stuff. And then I was pregnant, which was serious drama. For some idiotic reason, after I finally guessed what was going on and bought one of those tests to be sure, I just assumed I would go live at my boyfriend’s house with his folks and we’d be one big happy family, but that was delusional. He didn’t want anything to do with it. Said he wasn’t even sure it was his, which was ridiculous because he knew I hadn’t been with anyone else. What a jerk he turned out to be. And unlike your guy, he wasn’t even cute.”
Sidonie smiled and sniffed beside me. “What did you do?”
“I couch surfed for a while with different kids from school, and then pretty much moved in with my best friend.” I felt a pang, picturing Allie at fifteen, with her curtain of hair, her gawkiness, the way her glasses usually managed to be a little crooked. She could have afforded cool clothes but she wore things she liked instead. Unlike everyone else in high school, she was completely comfortable with herself and didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t look or act like everyone else. “Her parents were amazingly cool about it. They didn’t make a big fuss, just moved a futon into her bedroom and acted as if it was normal for a sleepover to last months. They didn’t know why my mom kicked me out, though everybody knew she was a weirdo, and it wasn’t the first time I needed a place to sleep.”
“Her life was kind of a mess. She dropped out of Princeton to deal weed, mainly to piss off her parents who were rich and bossy, and she had really bad taste in men. Word of advice: dealing drugs is not a great way to meet guys. Anyway, I moved into Allie’s bedroom and the thing is, even though I logically knew I couldn’t raise a baby on my own, I didn’t do anything about it. I just kept going to school, doing my homework, daydreaming about how it would how neat it would be to have a kid. I wasn’t even old enough to get a job, no way I could raise a child. I just wasn’t thinking straight.”
“So… did you have the baby?”
“No. I woke up one morning and realized how impossible it all was. I went to a clinic and got an abortion. And I didn’t feel bad about it. Still don’t.”
That was stretching the facts a little. In reality, I had kept on daydreaming and I would have avoided reality until it was too late to do anything about it. But one afternoon when I went to lunch I realized I was bleeding, so I went into the girls’ bathroom and locked myself in a stall decorated with messages like “Laura + Mitch 4evah” written with a purple sharpie and “I hate algebra” in sharp enraged scratches. I sat on a toilet surrounded by the angsty graffiti while I miscarried. A spontaneous abortion, fitting for the outcome of a spontaneous and unprotected moment with a boy who was into sex but not into consequences. Who immediately started a rumor that I was a slut who slept around. Who, when it came down to it, didn’t care about me at all. That was one thing I had in common with my mother: terrible judgment about men.
Allie went looking for me, found me crying in the bathroom, and coaxed me to tell her what was happening. She should have been pissed off that I had kept it from her. She was my best friend, she talked her parents into letting me stay with them, she was always there for me when I needed someone, which was pretty much every day, and I’d kept something so important a secret. But, being Allie, she didn’t mess around. She snapped at anyone who tried to come into the bathroom and made them go away. She talked to me through the stall door while I cramped and bled and cried, then loaned me an oversized sweatshirt to hide the bloodstain on my jeans and swiped the keys to her brother’s car to drive me to the clinic, even though she only had a learner’s permit and could have gotten in trouble. She did get in trouble with her brother, who was angry when he found out she had lied about needing a notebook she’d left in the car and had taken his precious vehicle without permission. She was in trouble with her teachers, too, for skipping out of history and French without an excuse, but her grades were so good it didn’t matter in the end.
“I should talk to my parents, I guess,” Sidonie was saying, then heaved a sigh at the enormity of it.
“Will they throw you out?” I made it into a joke; somehow I knew they weren’t like that, and she laughed.
“No. They’ll be upset and disappointed, but they’ll support whatever I decide to do.” She flicked tears out of her eyes. “I’m way behind on my homework, though. I missed a bio quiz yesterday. I need a good grade for the nursing program.”
“You can catch up. You’re smart and hard-working, and you’re a hell of fine writer.” She dipped her chin, embarrassed by the praise, but pleased. “And if you end up moving in a different direction with your life, that’s not the end of the world. I mean, I only had a semester at a community college.” Whoops, that wasn’t Maggie’s history. None of this was. Get a grip. “That first semester, I pretty much bombed all my courses. But I had a do-over, and eventually I even got a PhD. You have options, and with parents who want to help, who send you texts and buy batteries you don’t need, you’ll have a chance to figure it out. Though selfishly I hope you can stick with my class because I really like reading your essays. They keep me going when I have to write ‘run-on sentence’ six times in a row.”
We came to a car parked near the cemetery entrance. She got keys out her pocket. “Want a ride back to campus?”
“Thanks, but I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”
“Okay. Um, thanks for, you know, listening.”
She looked like she was trying to find words to say something more, so I said “You’ll have to email your bio prof about that quiz yourself. I’m not telling anyone about this.”
She nodded her thanks. “I’m going to go get some stuff from my room and head home for a while.” She flashed a strained smile, climbed into her car, and drove off.
I wandered around some more, finding myself standing in front of the same sad gravestones multiple times. The curving roads seemed to continually fold in on themselves like a maze I couldn’t escape. I paused to straighten a straggling bunch of plastic flowers, folded up a deflated Mylar balloon and tucked it behind the bouquet, thinking about that urn that held Maggie’s ashes, wondering where it ended up. She deserved better than having me move into the husk of her life, inhabiting it temporarily, keeping me safe before I had to move on again.
What I was avoiding, what I really needed to think about was how to warn Allie.
The road that I thought was leading out of the cemetery delivered me to the same bench where I’d earlier found Sidonie. I took a seat again and forced myself to face the problem. The only solution I could come up with was to track down Brian Friedman and persuade him to talk to Allie about the risk, let her know just how bad it could get, but the last time I contacted him on the encrypted messaging app we’d been using, he blocked me.
I couldn’t blame him. I had thought I was doing him a favor, handing him damning documents that he could turn into a blockbuster story, whistleblowing that would make his career and set things right. That’s not what happened. No story was ever published, and he was disgraced. It not only cost him his job, it ruined his life. He would never take a call from me.
He hadn’t blocked Maggie, though. He wouldn’t recognize the number of the burner phone I was using. Maybe I could find a way to contact him and, if I was lucky, he would listen just long enough for me to get his help.
“It’s you,” he said flatly, immediately recognizing my voice. I had spent a couple of hours up in my room searching the web and eventually finding the phone repair store where he was now working. I was lucky he was the one who picked up, but I had to work fast before he could slam the phone down.
“Don’t hang up.”
“I’m at work. I can’t talk to you.”
“It’s not me you’re talking to, I died. I don’t exist anymore.” I looked at the gravestones surrounding me, right at home.
“I don’t care if you’re dead and buried with a wooden stake through your heart, I don’t want anything to do with you. Or is there some part of my life you haven’t destroyed yet? Some remnant you want to finish off?”
It stung, but I pressed on. “There’s a woman who’s investigating Eventive. She has no idea how dangerous it is. I can’t tell her to stop because I’m dead, but you could.”
“Sure. I should just call some reporter out of the blue and tell her what to do. Like, hi there, I just want you to know you should really not follow up on that bonkers story a crazy woman is feeding you, because I work at a phone repair shop and know all about it.”
“I’m not feeding her anything, and she’s not a reporter.”
“You can trust me,” he said over my words, continuing with his imaginary phone call. “I’m that well-known drug-addicted plagiarist who maybe, probably, almost certainly abused his own children for years before the publication he worked for fired him.”
“I’m sorry, Brian. I am so goddamn sorry.”
“Lot of good that does me. Look, I need to—”
“Don’t hang up. Please. You could tell her what happened to you.”
“And she could Google my name and how much credibility would I have after that? Besides, I’m done. I’m out. I’m not touching this with a barge pole.”
“She has kids. Two little girls.”
He took a ragged breath. I thought for a moment I’d triggered his conscience, but I’d only pushed a rage button. “I had two sons.” His voice shook with anger. “I don’t get to see them anymore.”
“We had a couple of supervised visits, but it was too weird, and then the mob started going after them, too. I couldn’t keep—hold on, I got a customer.”
A clunk, a mutter of voices. Laughter that sounded as if it was from a canned television soundtrack. I waited. I waited some more.
“The fuck is wrong with you, calling me?” His voice was back, a low growl, fury kept on a chain. “After everything that happened. How do you have the nerve—”
“She’s in danger. Who else can I call? I’m desperate.”
“You think I’m not? Thanks to you, I lost my career, my home, my kids. They swatted us, did you know that? How do you think it feels to see cops dressed like Darth Vader come busting into your home at four in the morning, screaming and pointing guns at your children?”
“The damned thing is I have no idea if Eventive called in the SWAT team or if it was just one of the crazies they set off. Once this, this tsunami of hate gets stirred up, it replicates itself, like a virus you can’t stop from spreading and mutating. I still get random waves of abuse from people who think I’m evil incarnate, and the accusations keep changing, getting weirder all the time. I never realized people could be so unhinged, so eager to go after someone they don’t even know. I mean, I knew. I wrote stories about it, but it’s not real until it you’re the target. You know what’s funny? Before all this happened, I was under contract to teach an online course at Medill, investigative journalism in the era of social media.” He laughed. It sounded like harsh coughing. “Jesus Christ, the irony.”
“Her name is Alexandra Saunier. She lives in Lewiston, Maine. She married a landscaper, she just had a baby, she wants to be a writer. She published a cute essay about ducks. Now she’s got the idea Eventive had me killed and she’s asking questions. She is so not ready for what will come down on her. Can you do something?”
“Why do you care? Is this to protect your anonymity, is that what it’s really about?”
“No. She was my best friend in high school.”
“Lucky woman. I made the mistake of thinking we were friends.”
I couldn’t respond. My throat felt as if it was suddenly jammed full of marbles.
He sighed. “Look, somebody is just pulled into the parking lot. I think it’s the idiot who tried to replace his own iPhone battery and screwed it up. If I’m lucky he’s going to the laundromat next door.”
“Brian, Jesus. I’m so sorry. I should have known—”
“It’s not your fault. And it’s not like you didn’t get a shitty deal, too. Speaking of which, how’s life treating you, now that you’re dead? Forget it. Don’t tell me anything.” We listened to each other breathing for a moment before he said “Oh crap, he’s coming here and he doesn’t look happy.” I heard the faint chime of a bell. “Hi. Be right with you,” he said, his voice turned customer-service cheery and false. “Gotta go,” he mumbled. “Uh, listen. Take care of yourself, whoever you are.”
“You too,” I said, but he’d already hung up.