“When in darkness… the only thing you can be expected to be is yourself.”
Wednesday afternoon, 1 April 2009
GM: Day comes. Em and Celia are both still there. The monsters haven’t gotten them.
At least not yet.
It’s late. Around 1 PM. Celia supposes that’s another day of classes she’s now missed. There are texts from Emily, Stephen, and her mom about where she is.
Her mom says she’s got the restraining orders picked up. They were approved.
Like that will make anything better.
Would you and Stephen like to come by for dinner? I’m making a big batch of really cheesy lasagna. :) the text ends.
Emily also adds, thanks for breakfast, nice not having to cook
Celia still feels sluggish and tired. She can’t have gotten a full 8 hours. When did they go to bed?
Celia: Celia leaves the still-sleeping Em lie and pads quietly out of the room, phone in hand. She returns a few texts.
To Emily, no prob. love u. mom said u can move in this summer.
To Stephen, hey. crazy night. call u soon!
To her mom, what time? Emily said thanks for bfast.
And, finally, to Cécilia: hey call me when u have a sec please its urgent
GM: Emily responds, oh great!!! we’ll stay roomies :D
Stephen doesn’t immediately reply.
Her mom sends back, 6:30, but maybe stop by at 6. Tell her she’s very welcome!
Cécilia also does not immediately reply. It’s an hour ahead in Massachusetts.
Celia: Celia takes advantage of the momentary lull in messages to call her dad’s house phone.
GM: “You’ve reached the Flores residence. Leave a message and we’ll call you back,” sounds her dad’s voice.
Celia: She hangs up.
GM: Celia has time to shower again, if she feels like it, and to rummage through Em’s fridge for something to eat. She can see her mom wincing at the contents. It’s almost exclusively frozen meals, some restaurant takeout, and lots and lots of Red Bull and other energy drinks, along with a half-eaten white bread Nutella and butter sandwich.
The pantry shelves are much the same. There’s various prepackaged sweets and fried snacks, all high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Junk food. There’s lots of Nutella, too, along with ramen, booze, assorted candy, and Kraft mac and cheese. The white powder might be sugar, though it’s funny how it’s in little plastic baggies.
Em looks like he’s going to eat himself into an early grave with this diet. It’s a 12-year-old boy’s culinary dream.
Then again, she supposes he doesn’t have to do much cooking with a restaurant literally downstairs.
Celia: You need some real food, Em.
Once she’s done rummaging through his fridge, Celia helps herself to the shower. She doesn’t skimp on the hot water, letting it cloud the room once more, just like she did last night. It burns, but not enough. Not enough to get rid of the stain she feels on her soul. Stephen’s lack of response weighs on her, but she tells herself that he’s in class. He has to be. Otherwise he’d call. Right? Maybe the heart she sent freaked him out. She tries to remember if they had plans last night. No, how could they? Dad is in jail. That throws a wrench into everything.
What am I going to tell him?
The water isn’t hot enough. She’s still shivering, even under the spray.
After the shower she helps herself to more of Em’s clothing, a simple tee-shirt this time, and pulls on the same sweats from last night. She doesn’t think his jeans will fit, and she… doesn’t want to wear his whoring clothing. She microwaves a meal for herself, then cracks an energy drink. Maybe that will clear the fog from her head.
She stares at her phone, willing it to ring.
GM: Celia doesn’t feel the water until her skin starts turning red. She’s not sure how much time passes in the shower. She feels like she zoned out through it. She stares at herself in the mirror for a while. She looks so pale. Her head still feels funny.
The Four Cheese Hot Pockets rotate around in the microwave before it dings that it’s done. They smell like coagulated cheese and pastry dough.
She’s halfway through one of them when the phone rings. It’s her longer-named former classmate’s number.
“Hi Celia, you said it was urgent?” she greets. “I’m sorry I couldn’t call you back sooner.”
Celia: How is it, Celia wonders, that she burns her mouth on the outside of the pastry but the middle is still cold?
“Cécilia! Hi. Yes. Do you, uh… do you have a minute? I need… help,” she finishes lamely, after a brief pause. She closes her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers.
GM: “Yes, of course. What do you need help with?” Cécilia asks.
Celia: “It’s… a long story. Just just listen, okay? It’s… I never told you this. You asked, once, in high school remember? About my mom. The separation. And… Cécilia, my parents, it was ugly. My dad is not… he’s not a nice guy. He tried to kill her. It was before you moved here, but that’s why her leg is like that. I saw him. And he’s been coming down hard on Isabel and Sophia and I. The boys are okay, but… but we… you know those rules we had? Those were all him. And if we broke them, he’d…”
She trails off. Her voice catches.
“Cécilia, he beat me. The other day. He did it when I was younger and he did it again now. Until I was bleeding. He kept going. And locked me inside my room. I had to go out the window. I spent the night in the ER. There’s a restraining order, my mom took the kids, but… but we know who he is, Cécilia, we know people like him aren’t stopped by things like this.”
It hurts, to admit it out loud to her friend. To uncover her dirty secrets in front of the flawless Cécilia. She is glad that she does not need to look the other woman in the eye, to see the pity or judgement or compassion.
GM: “Oh mon dieu,” Cécilia whispers. “I’m so sorry you and your family have had to go through that, Celia. You and your mom are both so nice. That’s just… unconscionable, what your dad did to you. You don’t deserve to suffer like that, at all.”
Celia can’t see the pity or compassion. But she can hear it.
Celia: “He’s why I didn’t go away to school,” Celia presses on, voice cracking. “To keep them safe. I couldn’t just leave them. And he… he knows it was me, who called the police, he knows, and… I… he tried to kill her for wanting to leave him, what is he… what is he going to do to me?”
GM: “I don’t know, and I hope you never do. First, do you know where he is right now?”
Celia: “I think he’s still in jail. But I don’t know. I haven’t gone back home.”
GM: “Oh, he’s been arrested? When was this?”
Celia: “Two nights ago. Not even. The middle of the night before last.”
GM: Cécilia asks a number of further questions to ascertain the Flores family’s current situation, then says, “Okay, that clarifies a lot of things. And you’re scared your dad is going to come after your family?”
“I’m sorry, of course you are. I’d certainly be.”
“Is that the main thing your family needs help with? Or are there other things, too?”
Celia: She doesn’t know how to tell her. About the monsters. The rape. Em. She’s quiet.
“Yeah,” she says at last.
“That’s that’s mostly it.”
GM: “Okay. So you’ve said your family is staying by themselves, in an apartment they’ve rented. That doesn’t sound very safe to me, especially if it’s been one and a half days since your dad was arrested. He might have already gotten out. And like you’ve said, a restraining order may not make any difference to him. Do you have any other relatives in the city you could stay with?”
Celia: “I… no.”
Maybe. Grandmother. Or… dad’s dad.
“Maybe,” she corrects herself.
Her eyes dart towards Em’s door. She has to trust him, right? He was telling the truth.
Is your mom a crazy psycho demon monster?
It sounds insane.
GM: “Maybe. Okay, what is it that has you unsure?” Cécilia asks.
Celia: “My mom and grandmother have a feud about ancient history that has nothing to do with this but they’re both being stubborn because why not, right?”
GM: Cécilia asks Celia about her grandmother, then says, “Okay, so a judge sounds like one of the absolute best people you could stay with. A restraining order might not have many teeth, but trying something around your grandmother could get him in very serious trouble.”
“That might deter him. And if it doesn’t, that’s definitely a win for you if he winds up in prison.”
Celia: “Cécilia… what about… could your… mom..?”
She doesn’t want to ask. Asking admits she believes in monsters. She doesn’t want to live in a world with monsters. She gets the words out anyway, as halting as they are.
GM: “Yes, I can definitely ask my mom to help. What do you need from her?”
Celia: I don’t know, Cécilia, I just heard that she’s a man-eater.
“Can I… should I talk to her? Explain? Maybe she’ll have an idea…”
GM: “Of course, if you think it’d help,” Cécilia answers seriously. “But these sorts of situations are difficult. She may not have a better answer for you than me.”
“Though actually, I had one thought, if the feud between your mom and grandmother is really serious. What if your brothers and sisters stayed with your grandmother? Would your mom be okay with that?”
Celia: “Maybe. It’s worth looking into. Gets them out of the way, out of his path if he… if he comes after us. I’ll talk to her. I don’t know what the issue is. They won’t talk to me about it. I hate—I hate this. I hate not having an answer. I hate him.”
GM: “It’s beyond horrible what you’ve described your family as going through,” Cécilia answers. “You definitely have every right to hate him for what he’s done to you. What about your mom? Does she have somewhere she could stay that’s not by herself?”
“And here’s a related question, actually. Who are the people in your life you really trust, who you’d be most comfortable knowing all this?”
Celia: Her mom doesn’t have the money to spring for another hotel or apartment. Maybe one of her friends, from the old days. She doesn’t think her mom would want to bring this into McGehee.
“My… I mean I’m seeing someone, he knows about it. And my roommate.”
And Em. He knows. He knows more than all of them.
“But… I don’t… I don’t think she can hide out with any of them.”
GM: “Why do you say so there? Do they have families that she could stay with?” Cécilia asks.
Celia: “I’d have to ask. I think he’s mad at me. My roommate doesn’t have a family.”
GM: “Oh, I’m sorry. Can I ask why, or is that really none of my business?”
“I just bring it up because if your boyfriend knows and he has a family, they might be an option.”
Celia: Celia hesitates.
“It’s… please don’t repeat this, okay?”
GM: “Of course. I won’t.”
Celia: “I was… assaulted. Last night. I… I made a bad decision, and there was… I think someone put something in my drink.” She squeezes her eyes shut tight, wiping away the tears. She’s not going to cry. “I don’t know what happened. And I didn’t get back to him. And now he’s not getting back to to me, and… I think I…”
Oh, she is going to cry.
“And he w-won’t talk to me.”
“And it w-wasn’t my f-fault.”
GM: “Oh my god,” Cécilia breathes. “I’m so sorry, Celia. You’ve been through so, so much.”
“You are absolutely right, it was not your fault.”
Celia: “I can’t tell him be-because what if he… what if he thinks it was, and he c-calls me a slut, and he’s right.”
GM: “He’d be wrong. You’ve been under immense stress. Someone else took advantage of that.”
Celia: Once they start, Celia can’t stop the flow of tears. She presses a hand over her mouth to quiet them, hyper-aware of Em’s presence in the other room.
“I’m s-sorry,” she says after a moment, “I didn’t mean to unload that on you.”
GM: “That’s a good thing, too, because I don’t think you would have otherwise. And I’m glad you did. I’m amazed you’re still keeping it together like you have, Celia. You’re so strong.”
Celia: “I don’t feel very strong,” she sniffs. “Crying on the phone.”
GM: “Everyone would be hurt by what you’ve described. Everyone would need to cry and let it out. That’s actually a sign of emotional intelligence, being able to know the proper time and place to let out your emotions. You’re crying here, where it’s okay to, instead of in the middle of school or work.”
Celia: She’s right. Of course she’s right. Celia nods her head, though she realizes her friend cannot see. She wipes away the tears anyway.
“Right. Of course.” She sniffs again, wipes at her nose. “Thanks.”
GM: “You’re welcome. But okay, I think the boyfriend crisis is something to deal with later rather than right now. Your family needs to be kept safe from your dad right now.”
“My mom does a lot of charity work. She’s worked with various domestic violence service organizations. They have shelters for women and children in your family’s situation. Group homes where everyone can stay to get back on their feet, usually for a period of months, and where it’s hard for their abusers to get to them.”
“They can also help women get in touch with resources like legal help, housing, food stamps, and whatever child and family services they need. They also offer counseling and therapy services. But most of all, they offer a safe place to say. There are lots of people there who all know what your story is, and are committed to keeping you safe.”
“Does that sound like an option that might be helpful to your family?”
Celia: “Yeah. Yeah, it does. Thanks. I’ll should I just reach out to her about it?”
GM: “My mom can be hard to reach, as she doesn’t really like talking over the phone. But tell you what. Go to the New Orleans Women & Children’s Shelter on… hold on a second…” There’s a pause. “2020 S Liberty Street, with your family, and tell them the Devillers sent you. They know my family’s name.”
Celia: “Cécilia… I… I really appreciate it. But I’m trying to cause as little disruption as possible for my family. Can you have her call me, maybe? When she’s free? Please?”
“Or I could swing by the house. At her convenience.”
GM: “That would probably be better. Like I said, my mom really doesn’t like talking over the phone. But I don’t know when she’ll be free. She’s usually pretty busy. That might be days away, so I would go to the shelter with your family as soon as possible. Most domestic violence incidents occur when the abuser is off work, and your dad might already be out of jail.”
“Or is that maybe not a helpful option after all?”
Celia: “I don’t know,” Celia admits. “I’m going to see what I can make work. Maybe I’ll just… swing by and leave a message, and go to the shelter in the meantime, and see if Grandmother can take them if not.”
Or maybe, Celia thinks, this is really a blessing. Maybe she isn’t ready to deal with monsters, and maybe Cécilia’s mom is out of her league. Maybe getting her involved will make things even worse. Hadn’t Em had to kill someone as payment?
She isn’t sure that’s a bridge she can cross.
GM: “Leave a message with my mom, you mean? I could pass it on, if you had something for her. She’s less… picky about taking my calls, if it’s for an emergency. Which this definitely is.”
Celia: “Yes.” Celia seizes the opportunity. “Can you… can you tell her…”
Em said not to use his name. El isn’t any good either. She can’t just out the woman and cry monster, not if she wants it to go well. And she does. She wants it to go very, very well. To make her problems disappear without paying for them in blood.
“Can you just tell her that I’m your friend, and I need help, and I’m scared, and… Daddy is… he’s powerful, and I just need protection, more than this restraining order, whatever she can give.”
“And that I’d be my family and I we’d be really, really grateful.”
GM: “Okay. I can pass that along,” Cécilia says. “But, Celia, my mom isn’t a police officer or judge or anything. I don’t know that she might be able to do anything more for you than I have. So I would definitely not wait on us to go to the shelter or your grandmother’s.”
Celia: “I know. I know. I will. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
GM: “You’re welcome. I’ll call you as soon as I hear anything. Will you call me, as soon as you’re at the shelter or your grandmother’s, or if you run into any trouble?”
Celia: “Of course. Of course I will. Thank you. You’ve really… you’re really the best friend I could ask for, I want you to know that.”
GM: “So were you, at McGehee. And your mom was the best teacher I could ask for. I… I really hope your family is able to escape your dad, and all the nightmares he’s put you through, to come out the other side. You’re good people who deserve good things.”
Celia: “Thanks, Cécilia. That really means a lot.” There’s a smile audible in her voice. “You know if you ever need anything… I mean, once this is over and I’m not running around like a crazy person.”
GM: “That’ll hopefully be really soon, for both of us then.”
“Good luck, Celia.”
Wednesday afternoon, 1 April 2009
GM: Em groggily wakes up. It’s around 2 PM or so, so not that late an hour for him to be greeting the day. Celia is missing from his bed.
His stuffed nose is runny. His head feels all foggy. His stomach’s really growling, too.
The comedown always sucks.
There’s that Nutella and butter sandwich in the fridge. Maybe a sugar high will take the edge off.
Emmett: Maybe. Maybe it will.
No. No it didn’t.
As he washes down his latest regret with a fresh one in the form of a heavy-on-the-oj screwdriver, his waking coma eases up, and he becomes aware that Celia’s in the room.
“Oh, shit. Hey. You’re up early.”
Is 2 PM early for other people, with full lives and families and shit? Must be.
He doesn’t look good at the moment. His hair’s greasy, and the shadows under his eyes are darker then the bloodshot eyes themselves. “Caught me before my makeover. Ha. Haha.”
He disappears back into his room, and emerges a minute later looking better, his eyes brightened but still reddened. He lights a hastily rolled joint and sits next to her. "Did you call Cécilia?
He can tell she has. She seems… relaxed.
Celia: “You should shower,” Celia says to him. It’s not unkind, just factual. There might be some hot water left. Maybe. Her hair is still wet from her own shower earlier, but she has it pulled back from her face so it doesn’t get in the way.
“I did. She… might get me in contact with her mom. And if not…” Celia trails off. “Maybe it’s better if not. Maybe I just forgo monsters altogether.”
Maybe I just move back in with Daddy and ask him to keep me safe from his friends.
“I can’t tell if she knows. Boyfriend hasn’t texted. Or called. Mom is inviting us to dinner. Not not you, us, I meant my… my boyfriend.”
That she cheated on. She looks away from him.
Emmett: He sniffs himself and acknowledges the point. “I can’t make that choice for you. About Abélia, I mean. It’s risky, but if she wants to help you, I believe Maxen isn’t going to be able to bully her. That doesn’t mean she isn’t her own kind of spooky. She never really came after me, though. And I turned out fine.”
He lets that sit for a moment, taking a long drag off the joint. He doesn’t react to her bringing up her boyfriend, but asks, “Are you nervous about that?”
Celia: “About dinner? No. We’ve had dinner with her before.”
Though her siblings will be there this time, and that’s… complicated.
“I practiced the story on her. About the bar. I don’t know if I should tell him, though.”
He’ll want to do the right thing. Report it to the cops. Rape kit. Test her blood for the drugs she’d claim was in her system. That’s just trouble waiting to happen.
“You could come to dinner,” she says after a moment. “Get some real food in you. Noticed your fridge is, uh…”
Her eyes dart towards the Hot Pocket still on her plate. Pile it on, right? Find a way to explain him to Stephen.
Emmett: He stiffens slightly at the invitation, and looks down at himself, considering.
“As a friend?”
Celia: “As my date, obviously. My other boyfriend.” Celia rolls her eyes. “Yes, as a friend. You have time to change. If you’re not interested that’s fine too. My mom is just… she likes to feed people. And you already know my sister.”
“If Cécilia’s doesn’t get back to me I’m just… gonna go after him, I think.”
Maxen, she means.
Emmett: He frowns at what she says she’s planning.
“Do you think… he’s gone after her?”
Celia: Gone after who? It takes her a minute.
“You mean Cécilia’s mom? I don’t know. I doubt it. He doesn’t have a reason to. Said she just sits on the sidelines. Nobody important. His words.”
“Is she as scary as you said?”
Emmett: “Oh. Oh, I thought you meant your mother.” He looks relieved. “No, I’m not worried about him doing anything to her. You’ll understand when you meet her. She’s… something.”
Celia: “Oh. No. I…”
Maybe. Maybe he did. Maybe that’s why she can’t get him to pick up the phone.
“Cécilia thinks I should move them. I need to convince my mom to go to my grandmother’s house, but they’re fighting for dumb reasons.” Celia doesn’t know the reasons.
“I want them to move. To go anywhere else so those things don’t find them.”
Emmett: “Well, easy answer to that is to stop them fighting somehow. Convince them that this is bigger than their history. This is your future.” He makes a rolling gesture with one wrist. “That kind of thing.”
Celia: “Ha, my future. Their whole fight was about me. Grandmother wanted Mom to abort me.”
Awkward. She hadn’t meant to say that. She leans back against the couch.
Emmett: “Getting them to move… I don’t know, if you can get a loan or some money real quick you might be able to rent a place to keep them that’s not easy to look up, but I don’t know how you can keep them away indefinitely.”
He doesn’t look happy to say it.
“I don’t know who you can go to for help against them, other than Abélia.” He says that name in a half-whisper.
Then he hesitates.
“I… I actually do, maybe, but it’s kind of a cure-worse-than-disease situation.”
She’s intrigued, but skeptical. Even Cécilia’s mom is out of her comfort zone, let alone someone else.
Emmett: He shakes his head, his face already pale.
“I shouldn’t have mentioned. It’s the person who had me… do the thing I told you about. I don’t ever want to see her again in my life, and I owe her already. Getting in touch with her would be dangerous in the first place, too.”
“Look, I don’t know. If you could get out of the city, I would say that. But your family’s not gonna want to move.” He wrings his hands. “I think that the key has to be surviving until you can meet the lady. Because without her, I honestly don’t know what we can do to get them off you. Before, she was just a dangerous answer. Now… she might be your only one.”
Celia: “Wait. You mean… her mom wasn’t the one who had you do the thing?” Celia is having a hard time following. There are too many pronouns, not enough concrete answers.
Emmett: “No. No, she was… she didn’t make me do anything. She was just… creepy. Really fucking creepy. She breastfed her youngest in front of me, and the milk was black.” He doesn’t elaborate. “And she… she read my mind. Or something like it. She’s hard to keep secrets from.”
Celia: “…but you think she’s not human.”
It’s the first time she’s put it into words. Not. Human.
Emmett: He shakes his head.
“I know she isn’t.”
Emmett: “She told me as much. She said I knew how to lie, and that any human would have fallen for what I had told her. And there were… other things.” He shakes his head. “I just knew. You don’t have to believe me, it might even be better if you don’t, but she’s not human, any more than the ones that had you were.”
Celia: The ones that had you. God, that phrasing. She almost regrets telling him. She pulls her knees up onto the couch, hunches her shoulders.
“You think I should get out. Just… leave? What about you?”
There’s a pause. She reaches for his hand.
“Come with me. We could…. fuck it, we could just go.”
Emmett: He smiles faintly as she takes it. He squeezes hers back.
“Where would we go?”
Celia: “Literally anywhere. Out of the city. I don’t care. We can just leave. There’s nothing keeping us here.”
Emmett: Em looks at her. “There’s nothing keeping me here, Celia, and I haven’t been able to go. You…” He smiles faintly. “People with nothing to lose don’t get to go to family dinners and worry about keeping their boyfriends. You know? You’re thinking about leaving. And you’re right, we could. But you would have to leave all that.”
He stands up, and heads back to his room. “Think about it. I’ll take a shower. When I’m done, if you want to run, may as well hit the road soon. And if you don’t… I guess I’m going with you to dinner.”
Celia: Why, she wonders, is he always right?
She can’t leave. She knows that. She can’t just leave and abandon Emily, her family, Stephen. Even if she made a life with Em somewhere else—and that’s awkward, isn’t it, considering he turned her down—she’ll feel the guilt about leaving everyone behind. She checks her phone again, looking for a message from her boyfriend. Maybe that will ground her.
Nothing. No call, no text, no nothing. She considers throwing her phone at the wall.
She huffs and sits back on the couch. She has other things to worry about than boys. Like what she’s going to tell her mom about bringing Em to dinner. And what she’s going to say to her siblings.
And, oh yeah, the monsters.
Emmett: When he returns, more than half an hour later, he looks like a different person. His hair’s been combed, his eyes look better, and he’s dressed simply but well, black slacks and a white shirt under a comfortable-looking blazer.
For a moment, he almost looks like Elliott.
“When’s dinner?” he asks gently. “And what’s your story about me?”
Celia: “You clean up nice.”
She sets her phone aside, pretending that she hasn’t been staring at it for the better part of the day waiting for it to ring. She stares at him instead, chews her bottom lip for a moment.
“Six. You know my mom is going to be there. And my sister. And… the rest of them.”
Why had she invited him, again? Ah, right, he’s got no food here and can’t take care of himself. Maybe this is a terrible idea. Maybe he’s about to ruin everything.
“I have no idea what we’re telling them. Ran into you at school? Technically it’s not a lie, we just leave out the cross dressing and the whoring and the Cos angle. And the murder. And the spending the night together. And literally any of the rest of the truth.”
“Yeah, so we just… lie through our teeth.”
Emmett: He nods, first at her obvious understatement, then at the recon she spells out. She probably doesn’t think of it that way.
“We lie through our teeth,” he agrees happily. “And we do it so they don’t have to know the truth. Don’t let yourself feel guilty for protecting your family, Celia. As for what we tell them… we have time to practice. I’m Elliott. I’m studying film at Tulane. It’s a dream I had from high school, but not something I think I’m cut out for—I’m considering majoring in…” he snaps his fingers, “Drama instead. I took a dance class once, a few weeks back, and that’s how we met. I help you practice sometimes. Don’t make a big deal out of it, but don’t be afraid to let them know you’re pretty sure I’m gay when I’m not in the room. No weird questions about why you’re bringing me home then, right?”
He spends the next few hours asking her about her siblings, what they’re like, and advises her on how to lie to them.
It’s fun to teach people things you know, he reflects. Maybe that’s why his parents do it.
Wednesday afternoon, 1 April 2009
Celia: Hours later, Celia has gone to her dorm room and back to gather a few things. Em drives like a nice guy and waits while she goes up the stairs to pack a bag. Emily is nowhere to be seen, but Celia leaves a note for her.
Spending the night w/ Mom. Be safe. Love you.
Staring at her phone hasn’t made it ring, and her boyfriend’s lack of call or text response is starting to worry her. But she’s at Em’s now, laptop open on his coffee table, scrolling the internet for any mention of her dad. Every so often she calls the landline, just to see if someone picks up.
She’s back in her own clothes, at least. She did Em the favor of doing a load of laundry while he got up to whatever it is he’s up to tonight. If the smell of weed permeating the air is anything to go by, she assumes he’s high. She’d feel awkward for invading his space if not for the fact that he’d said that she could, and… and there’s nowhere else for her to go. Her dad’s house isn’t safe. Her mom’s house isn’t safe. The dorm isn’t safe. She’d even told Emily to spend the night elsewhere, but she doesn’t know if the girl took her seriously.
So she kills time, scrolling through articles online for mentions of her dad. She finally types his name into the search engine. She checks her phone while she waits for the results to load.
She’s waiting for Stephen to call. She knows that, even if she won’t admit it to herself. She’s waiting for Stephen because she’s afraid to call him, afraid of what he’s going to say to her. At some point she sends him another text, inviting him to dinner at her mom’s. Lasagna. But that’s it. She can’t look desperate. It’s a game. There are rules. You can only text so many times before you have to wait.
GM: Calling her dad’s phone gets no response. Celia finds plenty of online mentions about her dad. She sees none about the state senator being arrested. The news outlets have other things to report on.
Celia: Celia thinks this might be a good sign. If her dad’s arrest isn’t in the news, then the party doesn’t know yet. The blackmail angle is looking… okay. Maybe.
GM: Luckily, she also learned a thing or two about unreported news few years back.
Thursday afternoon, 7 September 2006
Emil: It’s been over a year since Katrina and the city is still damp with the same water. Most days it just hangs in the air, pregnant with something foul. It sticks to your skin, and doesn’t let go even as you sweat it out, too humid out to evaporate.
Today it is raining. Hard.
The petrichor perfume arrests the senses. Ever since the storm, it’s tended to linger in places it shouldn’t be. Comes off the dirt, flung far by the hurricane winds. The pleasant scent, tainted by mold and mildew, hangs around the many floors of Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library.
From the high ceilings, puffed out air ducts drape down, temporarily installed after the HVAC systems were destroyed. They threaten to stay indefinitely.
The study rooms are up the stairs. They creak as she ascends. She finds the room empty, and dark excepting for a lamplight. There’s a sample laptop there her tutor borrowed from the university, in case Celia couldn’t bring her own. A note is attached to the lid.
There’s also a flashlight sitting on the desk, and the empty packaging of D batteries.
Celia: “The basement?” Celia stares at the note. He’s got to be kidding. The basement is… is creepy. Probably. All basements are creepy. And there’s a flashlight, which means there’s no lights in the basement, and that’s even worse.
Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe he’s lurking somewhere nearby, ready to laugh at her. But she looks around and doesn’t see anyone that the name Emil Kane could belong to. With a scowl, she scoops up the flashlight, battery, and laptop. She checks the light to make sure it works before she heads down the stairs.
She’s still in her school uniform, fresh off the bus from McGehee. It’d dropped her at home, but she’d made the four minute walk to campus for her tutoring session. Now, heading into the basement with the flashlight clutched between her hands, she wonders if she should have changed first. What if it’s wet? Dirty? Of course it’s dirty. And she’s wet, too, thanks to the rain. Her socks are soaked. She should have asked Daddy to drop her off.
She has to ask for directions to the basement steps. The kid who gives them to her leers a little more than is called for at the sight of her McGehee skirt and wet shirt. But he shows her, and she starts down the steps with the light leading the way.
“Emil?” She pronounces it like ‘Emily,’ only without the ‘Y.’ Ehm-ill.
Emil: It’s dark down there, the steps don’t creak. Instead, the plastic tarps that cover them crinkle as bubbles of air move under the wrinkled surface. She nearly slips a few times. The damp, rusted railing scrapes against her palm as she steadies herself.
Dark water splashes into her socks from a disturbed puddle as she nearly trips down the last, obnoxiously longer step. The words ‘Watch Your Step’ are just barely visible in faded yellow and black.
There seems to be nothing in the darkness. Nothing but her echoing call. It bounces off walls and skyscraper bookshelves which blip in and out of existence as her flashlight scans the room.
Celia: Watch Your Step. Right. Thanks for the heads up.
Celia reaches the bottom of the stairs and looks around, flashlight shining in front of her. She’s getting a bad feeling about this.
“Hello?” she calls out. “Emil? Are you down here? There’s a perfectly good room upstairs…” she trails off. She takes a step away from the stairs, wondering if this is some sort of nerves test. “Are you even down here? I can’t pay you for your time if you don’t tutor me.”
GM: Well, her dad can’t pay him. But she could spend the money, and her time, on something else. Something besides wading through dark and half-flooded creepy basements by herself.
Emil: “Celia?” a voice echoes out from the darkness as two pinpricks of blood-red light wink in and out of view down one of the far halls of barren bookshelves.
“Is that you?”
There’s the sound of cloth stretching, flapping fabric, the sloshing of thin liquid. Then an electric tick, before an amber-colored light flickers to life from a lamp. There’s a tall man hunched over a wooden table, his stature exaggerated by the long shadows and his willowy frame. What looks like an old overhead projector weighs heavily on the wooden table, next to various blanket-covered tubs.
The red pinpricks of light shining from the curious-looking goggles he wears melt into the warmth of the glow. He takes them off along with the bulky headphones wrapped around his neck and the scarf covering his mouth, revealing his face. It’s a rich mahogany, carved out of a good heartwood; straight from the core of the tree. She can count the rings in the creases of his smile, portents of laugh lines and promises of wrinkles.
“Come take a seat, but be careful with those puddles, nothing worse than walking with a wet sock.”
She sees clotheslines hanging above his head from the bookshelves. Various papers, washed out by the light, are clipped to the lines at several points.
Celia: It’s rude, Celia thinks, to shine a flashlight directly into someone’s face. But that’s exactly what she does when his voice comes out of the darkness, before he turns on the lamp that offers some small amount of illumination in this dim, dank basement.
What is on his face? She can’t help but stare, perhaps a moment longer than is necessary. This is her tutor? This… this weird, goggle-wearing, basement-dwelling, black guy? There’s no way her dad would approve of this.
That thought makes her take a step forward, conscious of the puddles she has to step around to get to him. Her flashlight bounces with every step. She sets her bag and borrowed laptop on the corner of the table.
“Why,” she asks, “are we in the basement?” Her socks are wet. She blames him for it, even though it was the rain outside that did it. “And what are these for?” she reaches for the glasses.
Emil: He doesn’t stop her from inspecting them. If he catches onto her uncertainty, her judgement, he doesn’t show it. He still smiles.
“We’re here because of Katrina. Because this city has a high water table and the architects of this library thought it wise to build a basement in spite of that fact.” Condensation drips from the water-logged ceiling tiles high up above. “I work here, for the library, doing archival and restoration work of whatever they could find in the aftermath of the flooding. This basement, if you could believe it,” he says, gesturing around the massive room, “used to be filled floor to ceiling with all manner of books, manuscripts, newspapers, government records, microforms, and records. One of the largest physical collections of music in all the fifty states was held right where you stand.”
The scent of vinegar wafts from the covered tubs.
“Nearly everything. Washed away. Gone. All that’s left now is in boxes like these,” he says. He gestures to the stacks of cardboard filing containers that sit on the side of the table.
Celia: Celia’s nose wrinkles at his explanation. Some might find it fascinating, the restoration work that he is doing, but she sees it for what it is: a waste of time. The school was stupid to build like this. He’s he’s stupid if he thinks that one man’s efforts will be enough to bring it all back.
“The basement flooded,” she says slowly, “because of a hurricane, and when it rains it gets wet down here, and you still have these things in cardboard boxes?”
She sets the goggles down and moves around the table to peer at the things hanging on the clotheslines. She reaches for the blanket covering one of the tubs.
“What’s in here?”
Emil: She’s insulting him. Insulting his intelligence. Either that fact hasn’t dawned on the highly recommended tutor’s mind or he knows something she doesn’t. His grin stretches into something wider, though his lips become no thinner.
Indistinct black and white photographs, sepiated by the amber light, hang from lines that sway along the eddies of the basement’s cool air.
“Tools of the trade. Truth-serum floating in solution. Renders the invisible patterns of silver halide crystals coating photo-paper visible to the naked eye. I’d hold off on uncovering it, you won’t like the smell.”
Celia: Her hand stops before she lifts the blanket, and she looks back to him as if he has just spouted German. She blinks, then sits down.
“How does that work?” Maybe a second explanation will help her understand what he means, with the halide and crystals and whatever else he’d said. It isn’t what she came for, but Daddy won’t say no to extra lessons.
She knows what he thinks of her.
Emil: At that question, his eyes smile too.
“You can imagine it like this,” he says, holding up his finger. He presses it onto a fresh piece of paper and removes it. He holds up the blank sheet of paper for Celia to examine.
“What do you see on the paper?”
Celia: “Uh… nothing…?”
Emil: “And yet,” he says, bending below the table to reach for something before placing an open jar of blue powder and a brush in front of her, “we know my finger print is there. I pressed fairly hard into the paper, just as we might project a negative image onto photopaper. It leaves an invisible imprint, a residue thickest at the contours of the negative.”
“We call this accumulation of residue the latent image.”
Celia: Celia picks up the brush and dips it into the powder. It’s like loose pigment eye shadow, or a pan of blush that has fallen and shattered on the ground. She draws the brush across the paper where he touched, leaving behind a small film of powder. She taps the brush off as she would any makeup brush and sets it aside, then looks up at him expectantly.
Emil: He’s nodding to some unheard beat. He looks content. He blows lightly over the surface of the paper, dusting off the excess powder. In the light, the azure colored spiral remaining on the paper looks near-black. It loops tightly and dissolves into dust at its edges.
“Now you see it, the image that was hiding behind. The unseen residue catches the powder, holds tight, to make itself seen. Residues attract residues. For photopaper, it is not powder but developing solution that emphasizes the residues. It’s not air that disperses the excess, but vinegar and water. But in the end, the effect is the same. Hidden truths are unveiled.”
Celia: Her brows lift.
“You’re like… really into this stuff. That was kind of poetic.” Even if it is weird. “But why the basement? Are you double-dipping? Getting paid while you get paid?” Daddy wouldn’t like that. Daddy wouldn’t like that at all.
Celia kind of does, though. It’s smart. He seems smart too, in a nerdy, basement-dwelling kind of way.
Emil: “I could tell you some part of the truth. That I need a pitch black room to not damage the images. That tuition is a burden that can’t be surmounted by only working one job at a time. But that’s not the whole truth. That’s not the important truth. It doesn’t explain why you’re down here.”
He looks into her eyes for a moment, as if reading some text in the reflection.
“I think you already know the answer, in the same way we knew the fingerprint was there before you brushed it into visibility. It’s the latent image of the same answer to many of the questions you’ve had.”
He plucks a negative from below the table, and places it into the projector-looking device. It shines a light down onto the fresh sheet of photopaper underneath it.
“So tell me, what things don’t make sense here? What is the residue in this room?”
Celia: Oh my God is this a test?
Celia deflates. The residue in the room? That doesn’t even make sense. There’s residue all over. There’s… the boxes in cardboard. The dirt. The water. The literal residue of them, existing, being down here like this.
“I don’t know,” she says, rather than guess wrong. She crosses her arms, like a petulant child.
Emil: He nods and continues, undeterred. “Yes. You do. You’ve pointed them out. One by one, everything that is out of place.”
“It’s okay to be wrong, the path to correctness is paved with incorrect guesses. Let them guide you.”
He takes the paper from the light and switches off the projecting device. The paper appears unchanged.
“For instance,” he offers, “you asked why are we in the basement when there’s a perfectly good room upstairs? One you know I’ve likely visited recently, given the note I left and the theft-risk of leaving a laptop unattended.”
Celia: The path to correctness is paved with incorrect guesses. And he’s her tutor, sort of, so she’s allowed to be wrong in front of him, and there’s no one here that will laugh at her. She bites her lip, though, because she doesn’t want to be wrong. She doesn’t want to look stupid. He’s already approved he’s smarter than her.
“Because… something is wrong with the room upstairs?” Because it’s dry, maybe. Or comfortable. Not creepy. Has lights. “Um. Because there’s a lesson down here?”
Emil: “Pre-cisely,” he expresses excitedly.
“Lessons don’t reside in public libraries or schools. Unadulterated truth lives only in the shadows, the gaps. That is where people hide the latent images of their secrets. We come down here to reveal them.”
He uses a pair of tongs to slide the paper under the blanket and into the first of the tubs.
“Down here, there are no eyes to watch nor ears to listen. So then, with that in mind, do you think I brought you here just to ask you about your B- in Calculus?”
Celia: He’s so weird.
She’s kind of into it, or would be if her socks weren’t wet.
“Are you going to tell me about the Illuminati and ask me to join your cult?” But she’s smiling, and maybe it lets him know she’s just messing around. She studies the laptop. “Well. I don’t really need a laptop for math since we have calculators, but you provided one, and you’re talking about secrets, and…”
She bites her lip again.
“No,” she finally says, “I don’t think we’re here to discuss Calculus. But also,” she says in a rush, “are we going to discuss that because Daddy said I can’t go to college if I don’t get A’s.”
Emil: He chuckles at the mention of the Illuminati as he moves the sheet from the first tub to the second. She can see the blur of an image forming in the moment the paper is transferred.
“We are. Upstairs I left a packet of problems for us to work through. Good ones too, with satisfying numbers waiting at the end of clever simplifications. I am your tutor after all.”
It’s a shorter stay in the second tub before tongs place the photopaper into the third.
“And we can go there right now, you can ignore the little inconsistencies you saw here… like those cardboard boxes you mentioned.” he says, leaning in across the table.
“Or we can stay down a little bit longer, and I can tell you a secret.”
Celia: “I like secrets,” she says. The answer is instant. She’s paying rapt attention to him now, sitting up in her seat, eyes fixated on him and what he’s doing.
Emil: “I’ve lied to you multiple times, hidden things in half-truths, during this conversation. Even if you accepted the explanations I gave you for them, you caught them as soon as they were pitched. Your grades paint a poor picture of you. Before I tell you my secret, I think I should let you know.”
He looks dead serious when he says, “You are sharp, Celia. So much smarter than your father was.”
Celia: No one has ever called her smart before. Not smarter than anyone. Not smarter than Daddy, certainly. That’s why she needs a tutor. Because she’s stupid. Because the numbers in class don’t make any sense.
Her mouth is dry. She licks her lips, looks away. She doesn’t know what to say to that. Maybe he’s just messing with her. Maybe Daddy is testing her, seeing if she reports back about her tutor being black. Or meeting her in a creepy basement. Maybe he’s about to do something to her, and she fell for it because she’s so stupid.
She pushes back from the table. Her hand closes around the flashlight. She’ll hit him if he comes at her. She’ll scream. She’ll run.
Emil: But she waits for little but her tutor taking the image out of the third and into the final liquid bath.
“If you play your cards right, you can expect brighter things in your future. Better than just a seat in the state senate.”
She sees him recognize how tense she is, he nods like he did before. “Every time I lied to you, you rationalized the fib. You were not made uncomfortable.”
“There’s a reason you feel on edge, it’s because your gut knows I’m right, that I’m telling the truth.”
Celia: “Um.” She isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. “So I’m… smart. And you think I’m hiding behind bad grades to downplay the fact that I have a brain and I’m not just a pretty face because it’s easier to pretend to be what the world expects?”
Her smile is sweet, and she blinks large eyes at him in the dim light of the basement. Her head tilts slightly to one side, then she giggles. It’s girlish, exactly the kind of facade she was talking about.
“That’s so silly.”
“What’s the secret?”
Emil: “Those are your words, not mine, Celia. Though now that you say it yourself, it doesn’t sound so silly to me.” He looks at her with soft eyes, nodding gently. “When in darkness… the only thing you can be expected to be is yourself.”
Celia: That lump in her throat is back. She isn’t sure where it’s coming from or why it’s there, and she glances away from him.
She takes a moment to gather her thoughts, to slide right back into unassuming high school airhead. It’s not hard when there are so few to be found.
“What’s on the schedule for today, Mr. Kane?”
Emil: “Hey. It’s okay. We all wear masks sometimes,” he says, speaking to the lump she’s trying to suppress. It’s like the words she puts up as a front are naught but dust in the air. “But strength comes in choosing when to do it, on your own terms, for your own purposes. No one else’s.”
Celia: Her smile freezes on her face. She doubles down. When her words finally come out her voice has been modified just slightly. A little more light and airy, a little more Southern. She drops the occasional letter from the pronunciation of her words.
“I’m ‘fraid I don’t quite know what you’re gettin’ at, Mista Kane. You got my head all ker-fluffled.” Another giggle, and she waves her hands in front of her face to accentuate her point. “Maybe you had me confused with someone else? If you’re double-booked I can reschedule.”
Emil: He simply looks at her for a second, his face flat. “I don’t believe I have. And I am not.” He retrieves the photopaper from the tub and holds it up, so he can see it. It’s still blank from the other side. Emil looks content with it.
“This paper holds one of the secrets I’ve been hoping to tell you. Has your father ever told you how politics really work around here?”
GM: He sure hasn’t. Celia is just an ornament to be married off.
Celia: “Daddy knows a woman’s place isn’t in politics. It’s at home. Makin’ dinners and raisin’ babies.”
Her smile grows fond. “You ever have a nice pecan pie? My daddy loves his pecan pie. I make a good one, too. The key is to pre-roast the pecans, see.”
GM: Celia’s mom was the perfect political ornament, too. Ballerinas are already supposed to be graceful, silent, and pretty. She was always smiling and looking good along her husband’s arm. Celia doesn’t ever recall her being involved in serious political discussions.
Her brothers are another story, though. Logan is still pretty young, but Dad likes to have David listen in on those. He’s going to intern for Senator Malveaux’s staff once he’s old enough.
Celia: She tells him that, too. About her brothers. How they’ll be great politicians someday because they’re learning young.
“Just like Daddy.”
She meets his eyes, dares him to contradict her.
“That what you wanted to tell me, Mr. Kane? That it’s all in the blood?”
GM: She should watch out, too.
Blacks are all Democrats.
Emil: “No. I’m afraid that’s not the case. If it was all in the blood they wouldn’t have to be learning young. They would simply assume their roles naturally as birds fly from the nest.”
“What is carried through from parent to child is name, legacy. And it has to be given with consent of the parent. An illegitimate child shares blood but not name.”
Emil: “But that is no matter, now. I wanted to show you what politics looks like behinds the scenes. And politicians are anything but behind the scenes.”
Water drips down from the paper he holds, it stings the ground with a hiss. “But, well… do you remember back in the 2003 campaign when your father was down in the polls? Then out of nowhere, a scandal with his opponent, Bill Jay Roberts.”
Celia: Celia goes very quiet at the mention of the 2003 election. She just looks at him, all pretense dropped, her eyes hard and lips flattened into a very thin line. After a moment she gives a minute nod.
“I remember the election. Not the scandal.”
Emil: “Of course. Your father wouldn’t have shared it when you were that young. The sexual assault of a young female aide isn’t exactly a dinner table topic, now is it?”
He stops for a moment to look her in the eyes. “That must have been a hard time for you, what with the divorce. I’m sorry.”
Celia: He doesn’t know the half of it. And she doesn’t want to talk about it. She looks down at the table. Somewhere, far away, she can hear her mother screaming. Her stomach ties itself in knots, and below the table her nails dig into her thighs.
“Yes,” she says, voice softer than it has been, “it was. And I told you he doesn’t talk to me about politics, I… didn’t know about any sexual assault.” Just the normal assault. Just the hacksaw in the hallway.
“How do you know about that?”
Emil: “Divorce is a matter of public record. To find it, you need only ask…” He waits for a moment.
“It’s also listed on Wikipedia.”
Celia: “Ah. Is that why you brought me down here? To tell me you know about my dad’s divorce? I haven’t seen her, if that’s your question.”
The lie comes easily. She’s used to saying it around her family and her dad’s friends, at all the events they go to when people ask. Haven’t seen her. Don’t talk to her.
Is this a test?
GM: It’s even true, too.
They’ve talked on the phone. But she hasn’t seen her mom in person since 2003.
Emil: “Not at all,” he says, shaking his head.
“I just noticed how you reacted when I mentioned the year. I wanted to make sure you were all right talking about the campaign.”
“I know how it feels to not have a parent around,” he admits.
Celia: “I’m fine talking about the campaign. I just don’t really know much about it. I was a kid. Daddy doesn’t tell me those things, and he didn’t then either.” Not smart enough. Wrong gender.
Emil: “That’s why I’m telling you about it now. So you have the context you’ll need when I tell you the rest of the story.”
“Would you like some tea?” he asks, hanging the photopaper from the tallest line with a clothespin. He retrieves a box of Lipton, a pair of mugs, and a miniature hot water heater.
Celia: Celia glances over her shoulder at the steps she knows are somewhere in the distance, as if debating if she should call it a day and go back home. But he’s offering tea. And he still hasn’t told her the secret, and there’s a little voice inside that thinks it might be important. Maybe. He had to have lead her down here for a reason, right? And if it was nefarious he’d have acted on it already.
“Um. Okay. Tea sounds… nice.”
GM: The heater seems odd, though. So do the mugs. Iced tea comes in glasses.
Celia: Celia is too polite to mention it. Maybe he lives down here and has to boil the water to sanitize it.
GM: She’s heard of people who had to do that after Katrina. She never did.
Emil: The water bubbles and pops over the heat.
“So like I was saying, one day, the news was everywhere, and the chest pounding about the accused politician’s sexual impropriety began on that same day.”
“Your father’s at-the-time poor polling was flipped on its head. Moral outrage does the Republican Party wonders.”
He pours the water into the two mugs over the tea bags. Curiously, Emil uses three bags for his own.
“How many teaspoons?” he asks, referring to a glass jar labeled SUGAR.
Celia: “Two.” She’s not going to drink it, though. No telling what’s in the sugar, or the tea bags. Maybe he’s waiting to roofie her. Drag her out of here when she’s unconscious instead of risking it if she screams.
“So the scandal hit and my dad won because it made the other guy look bad.” Just like an envelope showed up at her house that ruined her life because of what her mom did. “Are… sorry, are you implying my dad was behind that?”
Emil: He smiles, doling out the sugar. He puts half a teaspoon in his.
“I don’t make implications, Miss Flores,” he says, stirring his tea. “I develop photographs.”
His tea looks blacker than black, the three bags crowd the cup, but he doesn’t remove them before drinking deeply from the mug.
“You had questioned using these cardboard boxes earlier, for holding items in need of restoration.”
“You were right to do so. They hold something far more important than barely audible Buddy Bolden recordings. Hidden truth.”
Celia: Her tea sits untouched in front of her. She watches him drink, as if looking for signs of poison or dizziness. A sudden collapse, eyes rolling back into his head, mouth foaming.
His questions are even more dangerous than the tea, though, and she is sure that he knows it. She still doesn’t know his game, doesn’t know what he wants from her. She nods once, to show she’s listening.
“Is that why you found me? To tell me he’s a bad guy?” The words are barely above a whisper. Her hands have moved to close around the mug, knuckles white. If she’s in trouble then she’s in trouble already. She hasn’t admitted to anything, she thinks. Just asked.
Still, Daddy would be mad.
Emil: He’s looking into her eyes once again, reading something in the whites, he drinks another gulp of tea.
He shakes his head.
“No. I’m not here to slander your father. The worst your father did in this case was approve a strategy. Sign a document. He’s a delegator, as are most politicians. And you found me, like everyone else, from a friend of a friend. You paid me to teach you, so I want to teach you something valuable to your future. In addition to Calculus, of course.”
He sips some more, savoring it, before continuing. It must be bitter with how dark the liquid is, but his expression reads like he’s eating a beignet a la mode.
“As the daughter of a state senator, no matter how much you distance yourself from politics, at some point or another, one of these ‘scandalous leaks,’ regardless of its veracity, will target you. I’d like to teach you how information like this spreads, and how to know when its happening before anyone else gets word.”
The mug clinks against the table as he places it down.
“I’d like to help you stay protected.”
Celia: A hysterical little giggle gurgles inside of her. It is up her throat and past her lips before she can stop it. Only the hand that she presses against her mouth catches it before it can travel too far and let the world know of her desperation.
Protect her. He wants to help protect her.
It’s too late, she’d like to say to him, the files came for me that same year. But she stops herself. One, because only she, her mother, and the person who sent it know the truth. And two, because it has not yet ruined her life, so she will not be the one to blurt it out here to this stranger.
Hasn’t she been dreading this day? Someone finding out about her, revealing it to Daddy, the fallout that would occur then? Of course he would not love her anymore. Of course she would be abandoned, homeless, beaten. Because, despite what this man thinks, the worst that her father did was not sign a piece of paper.
None of these thoughts make it past her lips the way the giggle did seconds ago. She swallows them back down to the place where she can protect them, deep in the hot recesses of her belly where they gurgle and boil and burn. She fixes him with a look that is equal parts skeptical and hungry.
“Okay,” she says to him, nodding. “Okay. Yes. Show me.”
She doesn’t ask why. Why this stranger wants to help, what he thinks he knows. He’d said he thought she was smart, bright, had a good future ahead of her. Maybe she does. And maybe he’s full of it. And that’s okay too.
Emil: “All right. Let’s do this then.” Her tutor moves to lift one of the boxes onto the long table between them. His long, spindly arms hang off his shoulders and wrap under the box, cradling it far too closely for its heft, before he drops it on the table. Inside are a series of documents, from which he selects a newspaper cutout.
“You might recognize Bill,” he says, pointing to the black and white image of the politician, looking especially haggard. Set adjacent to his photo is that of a youthful-looking white woman with tears streaming down her face.
“Media called her ‘M’ for a time, until some reporter forgot they weren’t supposed to mention her full name. Since then, it was ‘Mary Anne Cooper.’ She gave a series of televised interviews. Very moving, very believable. Southern belle archetype. Couldn’t hurt a fly, modestly dressed, soft-spoken and youthful. The perfect picture of innocence.”
“A little too perfect, to be honest, but those polled didn’t seem to catch on. Especially since there was talk of video evidence of the assault.”
Celia: Celia stares down at the photos. Bill. The man responsible for putting her mother in the hospital. He didn’t do it, of course. Just signed a piece of paper. Like her father did. She curls her fingers around the mug of hot water in front of her—an insult to call it tea, really—to control the trembling.
These men destroy innocent lives. They don’t care who they hurt. They don’t care who they have to step on to get to where they want to go. They just grab and grab and grab for more and more and more until the whole world is as rotten as they are. Diana didn’t deserve what happened to her, but Bill didn’t care about the fallout. Just like M didn’t deserve what happened to her, but her daddy didn’t care about the fallout, or that he ruined a woman’s life.
They’re nothing to him, after all. Second class citizens. They have a place. He probably thought he was teaching her a lesson, too. Don’t meddle in the affairs of men.
“Was there? Video proof?”
Emil: “She had this lawyer with her during every interview. He had this gimmick where he would hold up the VHS tape in front of the camera and re-explain how tragic the woman’s story was. Her general youthful look, plus the worried paternal figure of the lawyer, only added to the perception of her as a child. It really touched people’s hearts.”
The picture of the man is on the table, his hair is slicked back, with what must be a gallon of grease. He looks on the verge of tears himself waving around that tape.
Celia: “But they never played the tape? You make it sound like they never played the tape. They just had a tape, which doesn’t mean anything. It could have been a Barney rerun or something.”
She taps a nail against her mug of tea.
“So there’s not really any proof. Just acting. And people believed that because they… cried?”
She shouldn’t sound so surprised. She’s done it.
Emil: “No. At least not publicly. And when you know how these decisions are made, it starts to make a lot more sense.”
He looks at the mug for a moment, before commenting, “That tea’s going to get cold.”
“The story went that M never wanted this to go public. She had discussed the events with a friend of a friend of hers, they encouraged her to talk to some other folks. Eventually, someone leaked it onto the internet. The lawyer came soon after, pro bono, then the interviews. No one expected her to show the tapes, that was for the courts when they pressed charges. But the leaks came with a warning, the tape could be made public at any time should the leaker deem it necessary.”
Emil takes another sip from his teabag-crowded mug. “Course, charges were never filed, nor was the video published. Everything got much quieter after your dad won.”
He pours more water into his own, but the color of the tea-saturated fluid gets no lighter.
Celia: Of course he comments on the fact that she’s not drinking it. She peers at him, then down at the cup, and says very flatly, “Nothin’ personal, but down here our tea is cold and in a glass.”
She smiles, as if that might take the sting from her words, and spreads her hands as if to say ‘what do we do?’
“So, for clarity: was M ever loyal to Bill, or was she just waiting for the right moment to turn on him? Or was this truly a case of someone assaulting her and someone else just convinced her to have Bill take the fall?”
There’s a pause, then, “What happened to her since?”
Emil: He looks at her for a moment. “You implying that I’m not as much from down here as you are?” It isn’t a look of hurt, just an intensity in the way he’s reading her.
“It’s a little more complex than that. With things like these, missions like these, each member of the mission has to be kept as much in the dark as possible.” He takes out a graduation photo of a girl who looks strikingly like M, excepting her hair, makeup, and the shape of her nose.
“Before this happened, she was a senior at Loyola majoring in poli sci and acting. Spent some time interning for Bill’s team earlier in her life, but left when she landed her position as a staff aide for your father.”
Emil plucks the same picture off the clothesline that he had left to dry some minutes prior. It shows Maxen front and center, with a group of employees surrounding him. He has his hands on M’s shoulder. His stare bores a hole out the image. The amber light bathes his visage in devilish fire.
Celia: Celia doesn’t know how to respond to that, though now she knows for sure he’s not around here. No one around here would ever be as direct as he is; they hide their poison in apple pies and smiles.
She doesn’t visibly recoil from the photo of her father and the girl, but there’s a new tightness to her lips. She only briefly glances at it before looking away. The pose, with his hands on her shoulders, is reminiscent of the family portrait hanging in their foyer.
“She ruined herself for him.” For a job.
Emil: “It’s more complex than that. She earned the position on her own merits. And your father never asked her directly to do anything uncouth.”
Emil places down a print out of various emails from Maxen and his secretaries commending her stellar work ethic. They call her the office daughter. Maxen writes that he’d be proud to have her as his own. Maxen’s encouraged the whole office to play matchmaker, to find her a good husband.
“She was an accomplished graduate. Admired by her superiors. And like I said, your father’s schedule alone requires him to delegate work.”
“It was about the time of her hiring that your father had become a client of Auburn Political Partners. It’s a political consulting company. Unlike most consulting organizations, their services went beyond running numbers and giving advice. You see, the laws in this state are a little funny around consulting. Consultees have diminished legal liability similar to that of corporations covering actions taken by consultants. Of course, consultants don’t normally do a great deal of actual work themselves beyond giving advice. Auburn Political used this legal wiggle room to offer a more… varied array of services to people like your father.”
Celia: She reads the line three times about how Daddy would be proud to have this other girl as his own. She feels something pricking the corners of her eyes and blinks a few times to clear it out. Has he ever said that about her? Would he, if he knew?
Daddy loves me, she tells herself.
Celia is absorbed in the email messages and almost misses what he says, but she catches on at the end.
“So they can do shady things,” she prompts, “like tell his staff aide to… pretend she’s assaulted.”
Emil: With a sigh, he states, “It’s more complicated. It’s always more complicated.”
He drinks deeply from the mug once more, and fills it up, adding another tea bag.
“They delegate too. Even more so than your father. All they technically did was run a few numbers, find that there’s a risk of your father losing the coming election. After running a few more numbers, they decided they needed to call on some friends of theirs to help patch up that eventuality. Everything is done through layers of proxies, so everything stays hidden. Everyone looks innocent.”
“Moral outrage rouses the voting populace, so they sought to create some. M just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The first thing they told her that she was being scouted for a special acting role. The chance of a lifetime. And her office family encouraged her to take it.”
She can see the hints of future wrinkles writhing on Emil’s forehead as he speaks.
“Acting classes. Social experiments. That’s how it started. Then they did market research, they needed to find the perfect girl. They planted friends to make her insecure about herself. Her chest, her voice, her nose, her hair, her skin. They were all too happy to provide her the makeover she wanted, she needed. Their friends remade her body. Breast augmentation, rhinoplasty to give her that button nose, skin bleaching to give her that porcelain color, you name it. Changed her name too, to Mary Anne. Played better with their statistics. Her name was Victoria,” he says, pointing out that name’s presence in the emails with the tip of a pencil.
“They made her into the perfect girl they needed. They made her ask for it too.”
Celia: Well, Victoria is kind of a stripper name.
She finally sips at her tea. It’s weird, really, and she wrinkles her nose and reaches past him for the sugar. Adds another teaspoon, then a second. Stirs.
“So they… changed her. Sent her back to Bill. Was the accusation of sexual assault false?”
Emil: “Initially, yes. There was some inappropriate behavior, which she made complaints about to Auburn Political, but no assault at least, from Bill.”
He places the documentation of those complaints before her. She sounds uncomfortable, but still determined to complete it. She sounds like she wants desperately to please the person she writes it to.
“M had gotten close to Bill. His campaign, funnily enough, had hired a sister company to Auburn for their own use. Your father paid more, though, and that’s part of why M rose so quickly. After a few months of closeness and evidence collection of meetings between Bill and M where they are the sole people in the room, M left Bill’s team and began preparing with the lawyer. The leak was about to be opened.”
Celia: “So… it’s all circumstantial. There’s literally no proof, except for these emails.” She looks up at him, brows raised as if she isn’t quite sure that she understands.
“Which puts them in the room together, but doesn’t prove that they actually did anything.”
Emil: He shakes his head in response. “Remember, Celia, this was a media campaign. They weren’t trying to put Bill away, they were attempting to hurt his chances politically. In addition to the Southern cherub that was M describing the purported assault in awful detail in the delicately brutal, heart-wrenching way only a true victim or a professionally trained actress could do, M had spent her time as Bill’s staff aide developing mistrust of Bill among her coworkers. Whispers of his inappropriate behavior were swirling around the office like wildfire. But M had made them promise to keep quiet, she needed her job and claimed to be afraid he would fire her should these accusations come out.”
“In the courtroom of public opinion, that was all the evidence they really needed to condemn him. It did not help that most of Bill’s female staff quit in protest when the allegations were leaked.”
Celia: Oh. Right. There wasn’t a trial. This isn’t a court.
“It’s literally just lies, you mean. That’s what they do. Lie about each other, sway public opinion, make people not want to vote for them. Anyone could lie. I could say something about Daddy or his boss and… and just ruin them.”
There’s a pause. She sips her tea again and seems to find it acceptable, because she drinks half the mug before she sets it down.
“How do you protect yourself from that? From people just lying? How come no one demanded to see the video?”
Emil: He smiles at her interest. The way she comes to that conclusion. About what she can do to people. About her power.
“Oh, they did. Some people questioned it being hidden. Others shamed them for wanting to reveal something so personal and awful about this woman’s life. Certain journalists looked into it and attempted to make some claims. Attempted to sway public opinion to demand a video. But your dad has some very good friends in the media. Those articles, those calls to actions, they had a way of just,” he snaps his fingers, “disappearing. Before they even got published.”
“But…” he says, placing a series of plain text documents on the table marked with a stamp that says PREPRINT, “that doesn’t mean the articles were gone forever. No one likes to have their job threatened, after all. No one likes to be silenced. It’s human nature.”
“I could tell you how they do it, where the aborted articles go, how you find them, if you want.”
Celia: “So I can find the articles?” she wants to make sure that she understands this. “You’re telling me they kill the articles, but that they’re out there, waiting to be found. But… if they’re silenced by the mainstream media, what good does that to? That they exist, I mean. If no one is reading them.”
Emil: “Because if someone goes through the effort of aborting an article in preprint, it must have something mightily dangerous inside it. And when something is dangerous to someone, that means it’s worth finding. Knowledge is power, after all.”
“And,” he grins, “as it turns out, in the same places you find aborted articles, you find the spawning ground of leaks. The only difference between the two, is that when something leaks, someone wants it found.”
Celia: “How does that protect me?”
Emil: He leans in, sips again from the tea, and says, “Here’s how. It means if you pay attention, or if you have someone pay attention for you, you’ll know when someone is about to spread lies about you. You’ll know when someone intends to ruin your reputation.”
“Of course, perhaps that isn’t useful on its own. Someone’s trying to spread those lies, make them heard. And even if they fail to, once you put it on the internet, it’s there forever. Someone’s gonna see it, eventually.”
“And all that’s true, unless you know that there are people who moderate those lowest, hidden levels of the internet. Those spawning grounds for filth and deceit. Unless you know the people who can make information disappear.” He has a prideful look in his eyes, a vigor she hasn’t seen thus far.
“It doesn’t take a hurricane to do it either,” he says, looking over the vast void of information, the empty graveyard of the barren shelves. Dead knowledge.
“People like your father know the men who abort articles. I know the men who run the crematoria.”
Celia: “Why?” she asks him, again. “Why are you showing me this? Telling me this? You said I had a—a bright future, but what does that even mean? You don’t know me. You know my daddy, and what he did, and that’s…”
Celia trails off, at a loss for words. She finishes her tea, then the sugar that was pooling at the bottom of the mug, and finally looks back up at him.
“Why?” she asks. “Why tell me? Why go through all of this? I just… I don’t understand.”
Emil: “Statistically, you have a significant chance of obtaining influence over one sector of society or another. The simple fact that you attend McGehee exponentiates the number of influential individuals you’ll interact with over your life. Your family’s wealth aids you even further. The remainder of my estimation comes from my positive assessment of you during this conversation. To put it shortly, the numbers look good.”
“Many people come to figures of esteem, such as your father, offering their services for money and influence, but those people are not to be trusted. No matter what shoddy work they do they’re confident that they’ll be compensated. They have no loyalty, no reason to put effort into your success because they advance themselves either way. I come to you at what you might call the bottom floor, because I want to support your growth. You can think of this as an investment in your success.”
“I’m not looking for money. I’m looking for a willingness to cooperate in matters which bolster both of our successes. In other words, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Celia: Ah, there it is. The catch. Yes, he’ll offer services now, and he fully expects something from her in the future. She’s heard her dad behind closed doors having this kind of conversation. The fact that he never thought to school her in them prevents her from being coy now.
“Information now for future usefulness because you think I’ll be someone,” she muses. “Because even if I’m not, I know people, or will marry someone, and that’s beneficial. I’m on my way up and you’re…” She looks around the basement, brows raised, then back to him.
“Then you’re pledging loyalty to a 17-year-old girl. Not my father. Not my friends. Not my future husband. Me.”
She takes another sip of the tea.
“Okay,” she says at length. “I’m listening.”