Elle was in the nurses' break room chugging coffee just this side of scalding when her phone went off. She saw it was Chuck and was already answering by the time her brain caught up enough to realize it was the middle of the afternoon and Chuck should be in class. She was in the thirtieth hour of a thirty-six hour shift, and had lost all sense of time in the windowless corridors of the hospital some time ago.
Calling in the middle of the afternoon, that was the first warning. Chuck had made the mistake of calling her while on duty when she first started her residency and she'd bitten his head off for it. She could be forgiven her outburst. It was a stressful job. But she suspected Chuck must keep her schedule somewhere, since he hadn't done it again.
The second warning was the sound of his voice when he said "Hey." It was high and quivering, and she hadn't heard him sound like that since Dad had left. Something was very wrong with her brother.
The rest of the conversation was a blur—something about being expelled? She can't have heard that right—but her mind was already on how she could get time off. This was a highly competitive program and taking any personal time, for whatever reason, was seen as a lack of commitment by the higher-ups. But Elle didn't spare a thought for that as Chuck transitioned into a fairly prosaic discussion of how long it would take him to drive back to Echo Park, depending on traffic and whether he made it before rush hour. Chuck sounded like he was trying very hard to be his usual cheerful self, and it hurt her to hear the strain in his voice
By the time she hung up, she was already on the way to program director's office.
Chuck didn't leave his room for two days. Elle wanted to give him space. When she went into his room to bring him his dinner (she always knocked first, but he wasn't answering), she worried that she'd been giving him too much space. When she tried to sit with him (silence can be a form of solidarity, right?), he told her she was hovering ("I'm fine, Elle, I promise").
She needed reinforcements. The weight of Chuck's distress was too much for her to absorb all on her own. She reluctantly thought of Morgan. As irritating and immature as he was, he could always get a smile out of Chuck. They had some strange geek connection that Elle could never quite understand, but she wasn't going to question it now. Unfortunately, he was off on some cross-country road trip to find himself, and was far out of cell phone reach.
At any other time, she would have called Bryce, of course. There had barely been a phone call from Chuck in the past three years that hadn't featured Bryce and their exploits, though lately those digressions had been edged out more and more by Jill.
But then Chuck told her what had happened. It was the first morning after he came home. "They kicked me out for cheating." His voice was almost amused, like this had to be the most spectacular practical joke he'd ever heard of.
"Cheating? Why would they think you were cheating?"
It took a few minutes for him to get around to the reason—Bryce Larkin had framed him for cheating. It was absolutely ludicrous. Chuck was too smart to need to cheat, and Bryce was no slouch himself. They'd been inseparable for years. What on earth would possess Bryce to do something like that?
They sat in silence together for a few minutes while the absurdity sank in. It was like there were in a parallel universe, and Chuck's best friend had been replaced by an evil twin. Her baby brother, her beautiful baby brother, who'd worked so hard to get a full ride to Stanford, who'd been so happy building a life there, who'd been a few months away from his pick of jobs, had just had everything taken away from him by someone he thought cared about him.
Then Chuck rolled over and told Elle was tired and was going to take a nap.
It was like Dad leaving all over again. And just like before she had no idea what she was supposed to do or say, only that she'd do anything to fix this. She couldn't then, but maybe this time would be different.
On the third day, Elle woke up early. She made a batch of Chuck's favorite chocolate-chip waffles, covered them in saran wrap, and left them in the refrigerator next to the syrup. She wrote a quick note:
Something came up at the hospital. I'll be back tomorrow. Waffles in the fridge, but you have to come out of your room if you want any. And a shower wouldn't be a bad idea either. Call me any time. I'll keep my cell with me.
She snuck into Chuck's room and put it next to him on his pillow, where he'd be sure to find it. Then she grabbed her car keys, the directions she'd printed out, and crept quietly out of the apartment.
It was early afternoon when she got to Stanford. First she went to the administrative offices. She realized she didn't even know who to talk to about something like this. Who expelled people? The President? The Dean of Students? She talked politely to the first three secretaries and not so politely to another five before finally making it to the President's office.
Their meeting lasted all of six sentences as he distractedly shuffled through files on something more important than her brother's future.
"Charles Bartowski's enrollment was rescinded due to academic fraud. An inquiry was held and Mr. Bartowski was found guilty. There are no appeals."
"Who?" Elle begged. "Who found him guilty?"
That got her the name of the professor who'd accused him. (Professor Flemming? Elle vaguely remembered the name. But Chuck had liked that class!) She caught him on the way to a class, and tried very hard not to make a scene in front of the passing students.
"I'm sorry," he said. He looked it. And maybe a little guilty, too. "There was an accusation, there was an investigation, and concrete proof was found. Even if I wanted to let your brother off the hook, with all of that, I had no choice but to recommend expulsion."
"But he could have been framed, couldn't he?"
His eyes darted to the side, and he started off to his class again. "I'm sorry, that just wasn't the case. If you'll excuse me, I have to go."
That left one last person. Bryce. If she could get him to take it back, to tell the school that he'd taken the tests, then maybe this could still all be okay.
She had no problem finding Chuck's frat—or rather, his former frat. That was one advantage of his being betrayed by a roommate. It meant she didn't have to try to lie her way to finding out where Bryce lived. It was past dinner by now. A college senior could be anywhere at this time of night—library, bar, or, more likely given Chuck's description of Bryce, the CS lab—but he'd have to come back here eventually. She'd wait all night if she had to.
Turned out that wasn't necessary. He opened on the first knock.
He was barefoot, wearing only boxers and a ratty t-shirt ("You are likely to be eaten by a grue" it proclaimed, bafflingly), his hair in tousled disarray.
"Elle," he said, drawing the vowel out like he wasn't quite sure of her name. But by the expression on his face, he knew damn well why she was there.
"Just tell me why you did it," she started. "Why destroy my brother's life?"
He stood, mouth slightly open for a moment, as if picking an approach. What he chose was the wrong one. "I didn't do anything," he said, something like condescending pity in his voice, "Chuck did this to himself."
"Bull. Shit." She banged on the door, hoping to make her way inside the room, but Bryce held it firm. Looked like this shouting match was going to happen in the hallway, then. "You know Chuck wouldn't cheat. He didn't need to, and even if he did, he'd fail out before he'd steal test answers."
The pity never left Bryce's face, and Elle wanted to smack it off, Hippocratic oath be damned. "I just want to know why you'd do something like this to your friend. Your best friend. If you tell me you were never friends with Chuck, I'll know you're lying. You were. I just don't understand how someone like you can throw a friend away. Chuck was a good person and a good friend and you know it."
For a moment, she saw something threatening to break in Bryce's face. She took the opportunity to push the door all the way open. And she got her answer.
Jill was standing near the closet, as far from the door as she could. She was wearing one of Bryce's shirts, collar stretched out, barely covering her hips, and nothing else that Elle could see. Jill looked at the floor, every bit as guilty as she looked.
"Oh," Elle said, already backing away, as if, if she left, she could keep this from ever having happened to her brother. "Oh. I see. You cheated with Chuck's girlfriend. You cheated. And you framed my brother, like the worthless coward you are. What, were you too afraid to see Chuck on the quad once he found out? You couldn't just break his heart, you had to ruin his life? People don't just disappear because you want them to. You know what? My brother's going to be fine, no thanks to you. And someday you're going to run into him again and you're going to see what you threw away and for how little. Both of you." She turned to Jill, who was looking at the wall, her shoulders hunched. Bryce looked like he might cry. Good.
She left with fury burning in her chest for what had happened to her brother. Bryce was never going to admit what he did, though there was no doubt in her mind that he'd been responsible for Chuck's expulsion. Chuck was never going back to Stanford. That was over. She'd just have to help him figure out what was next in his life, though she had no idea what that could be.
She sat in her car in the Stanford parking lot, her fingers on the keys in the ignition, surrounded by the immensity of this place that had decided the Bartowskis weren't welcome. It was too much to happen to a person, to her brother, to have the people he loved betray him, like their Dad had betrayed them. She had her answer as to why, but she still had no idea how to fix things.
Eventually she turned the ignition, then pointed her car to the nearest office supply store.
She had no idea what she was doing. She'd never tried anything like this before. She was probably wearing the wrong shoes or the wrong shirt. She didn't have gloves. Should she have gloves?
She had waited until classes started the next morning. It wasn't comfortable in the car, but she was used to staying up all night. She felt a little twinge that she'd told Chuck she'd be back this morning. Well, he'd call if he needed something. Crap! She quickly fumbled in her pocket for her phone and switched it to vibrate. She wasn't sure about most of this, but she was pretty sure that having her phone ring would be a bad thing.
She watched Bryce leave, backpack slung over one shoulder, then a few minutes later Jill came out the front door of the frat and headed in the opposite direction. They didn't leave together. Interesting.
She straightened her shoulders, checked her purse one more time, and headed for the door.
Getting in the front door was as easy as it had been the previous day. She didn't even have to offer an explanation for why she was standing in front of a locked door—the next person who went in held it open for her.
Chuck had made her a copy of his key earlier that year, in case of emergency. She'd remembered it in the middle of Staples last night. Good thing she had. She didn't think she could pick a lock with all the hairpins in the world.
She opened the door to Bryce's room and crept inside, despite having seen both occupants leave. Her heart was pounding. She felt terrified and slightly ridiculous. What the hell was she doing? This wasn't like her at all. But Bryce had hurt her brother. She'd never had a chance to defend Chuck against the pain of their father leaving, but she could do this.
She pulled the Staples bag out of her purse. She should have taken the plastic wrapping off in the car. Why hadn't she taken the wrapping off earlier? The hard plastic did not want to yield to her. Feeling even more ridiculous, she rummaged through Bryce's desk for a pair of scissors. Her eyes kept darting to the empty desk on the other side of the room. How could Bryce even stand to live here, looking at proof of what he'd done?
The packaging finally gave, showering everything all over the floor. "Crap!" Elle bent over to clean up. She thought maybe one of them had gone under the bed, but didn't want to crawl through a year's worth of dust bunnies to get it. Boys. She took a moment to take a deep breath and stop her hands from shaking. Bryce had gone to class. He wouldn't be back for at least an hour, and probably not for the rest of the day.
This next bit was the part she was least sure about. At home, Chuck took care of all the computer stuff. But it wasn't too hard to get the casing off Bryce's CPU. She pulled out the refrigerator magnets she'd bought last night. They were the stupid alphabet ones, but that had been the only type of magnets she'd been able to find. She didn't even know if this would work. Were they strong enough? If she had a ferromagnet, she knew it would work, but she couldn't go around Palo Alto looking for one in the middle of the night. Not without breaking into a physics lab, and one break-in was stressful enough.
She grabbed the magnets in handfuls and put them on the inside of the casing. In a sudden fit of inspiration, she wrote out "CHEATR"—there was only one E in the set. She put as many as she could on the case, jumbled together, and had a few left over.
Elle very carefully put the case back over the computer, hearing the plastic grinding together as it hit the computer components. She stepped back and looked at it with a sense of glee. Oh, this was wrong. She didn't even know if it had done anything. She could boot it up and see, but that just seemed too invasive.
As she turned to go, she spotted one of those external drives Chuck had at home. She looked at the four magnets still in her bag and shrugged. Why not?
Chuck was in the living room watching Looney Tunes when she got home. He looked better than he had since he'd come home. But still, in his posture, in his stillness, there was a weight there she hadn't seen in years.
"Hey," he said, turning. "Emergency at the hospital?"
"Yeah…" Elle said, wavering between telling Chuck the truth or maintaining the lie. She hated lying to her brother. It didn't matter, though—Chuck must have seen something in her face.
"You went to Stanford."
She joined him on the couch. She still felt jittery with the remains of adrenaline from that morning. She ducked her head. "I had to. Just to see."
"If you could fix it." There was a flash of hope on his face for a moment, that old faith that his older sister could fix anything. It broke her heart that she could never fix the most important things. The hope faded and he reached for her hand. "It's okay."
"I'm sorry," she rushed to say. "I tried. They just wouldn't listen to me." She sighed. "This is all so ridiculous."
"Yeah," Chuck said and turned back to the cartoon. "Thanks for trying, anyway."
After watching Wile E. Coyote for a few minutes, she bit her lip. "I may have done something a little reckless."
"Oh?" He asked, clearly worried.
"I went to see Bryce."
Chuck turned away at the name, like ice water had been poured down his back. "How is he?"
"Insufferable. I just wanted to…" she trailed off, making a strangling gesture with her hands.
"No." Chuck turned away again, probably thinking that was the end of the confession. "You know how you gave me a copy of your key?" Now she had his full attention. "I may have…waited until he was at class, and then…" she rushed through the last bit, "put magnets on his hard drive."
Chuck looked absolutely shocked, clearly trying for disapproval, but a snort made its way out despite his efforts. "You what?"
"They were just kitchen magnets, but I used about twenty of them. Would that have done anything?"
Now he was laughing, though still trying not to. "Yeah, if by 'do anything' you mean 'completely erase his hard drive.'"
Elle smiled, unable to help herself. "And he had one of those external drive thingies, like you have? I put a few on that, too."
"Oh my god," Chuck gasped. "His thesis!"
"His honors thesis—he was so paranoid about it, he wouldn't back it up to the public server. He only put it on his own external drive." His jaw dropped. "You erased his thesis."
"Oh, that's really awful." She cringed in sympathy at the work lost.
"He's been working on that for Professor Flemming since last year. He stayed over the summer to work on it." Chuck looked momentarily appalled.
"Oh no! Will he be able to graduate?"
"It's an optional thesis, so yes, but he won't get any honors. He'll only have just enough credits. He was planning to publish his research, use it to apply for jobs."
"I really shouldn't have erased that."
"Oh my god." She couldn't help a giggle. "That was an awful thing to do."
"Yes it was." Chuck was laughing now, too.
"This isn't funny," she said, shoulders shaking.
"No, it absolutely isn't," Chuck gasped between laughs.
"We should stop laughing."
"Yeah." Chuck paused for a second. "You think he's tried to turn his computer on by now?"
She looked at her watch. "Probably."
"Blue screen of death."
"Oh, it's so bad."
"And then he'll take the hard drive over to IT, and when they plug it in—"
"How long do you think he'll try to recover the data?"
"Days. But the way you erased it, there'll be nothing left."
"I am a terrible, horrible person."
"Yes, you are."
He giggled again, then curled up against her to watch the rest of the cartoon. And for the first time she knew that they'd get through this, too. Together.