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Sympathy for the Devil

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I swear, from the bottom of my heart, I want to be healed. I want to be like other men, not this outcast who nobody wants.” ~ E.M. Forster

July 1984

The phone is a shotgun that blasts Roger awake. His brain is wrecked and hung over, his eyes throbbing like bruised testicles. He fumbles for the receiver and answers with a croaked, “Hello?”

“If you miss my wedding, I’m punching you in the dick,” comes the voice of Roger's sister, Stephanie. For the past two weeks, she has called him almost daily to remind him about the wedding. It’s getting ridiculous.

Roger groans, lying back on the bed. Stephanie sent out embossed wedding invitations three months ago, but Roger had been preoccupied as the media’s whipping boy. He'd made a note to respond and then promptly forgotten, too caught up in the slow imploding of his own life.

“Go ahead. Not like I’m using it anyway.”

Stephanie sighs a tight, exasperated sound. “Just do this one thing for me, please? I’ll even give you the rest of the cake, if there’s anything left.”

Roger scrubs a hand over his face, trying to wake himself up from the foggy haze of sleep. Stephanie is engaged to Ken Roseland, a vague acquaintance of Roger’s in high school. They had both run in similar circles—student government, yearbook staff—but never formed that close of a friendship. Roger’s primary recollections of Ken include him pining over Stephanie and gazing at her dreamily from his seat behind her in Algebra. Last Thanksgiving, Ken yapped for thirty minutes about wanting to buy a time-share condo on Bainbridge Island, then later in the kitchen Roger saw him groping Stephanie's ass while she scrubbed the dishes, her gloved hands submerged in suds.

“I can’t wait.”

“So you’re coming, then?” Stephanie asks. Roger can almost see her twirling the phone cord around her finger and snapping her bubble gum in that obnoxious way of hers.

There are severe physical injuries Roger would rather endure than appear in public. Peeling off his own fingernails, for starters. Since the incident, he’s had a long history of waking up late and blowing things off. He flunked his spring semester of college by accumulating absences. He missed Stephanie’s engagement party, preferring the familiar comfort of alcohol and his own depression. So while her micromanaging is annoying, he understands where she’s coming from. It must be difficult, having a dead-weight sibling with easy access to booze and pills.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” he promises. “It’s today, right?”

“Madison Park Beach at noon.”

Roger glances at the bedside clock. The screaming neon red numbers read 8:51 a.m. “I’ll be there with bells on.”

“Don’t wear bells. This is my day to have everyone’s attention,” Stephanie says, then promptly hangs up.

Roger chuckles mirthlessly. No one will pay attention to the bride when Roger Cowell, accused murderer, shows up to the wedding.

Sluggish and sleepy, Roger fumbles for the television remote on the night table. He switches on the TV to be greeted with the morning weather forecast. Roger would be lying if he said he hasn’t had fantasies featuring KIRO 7’s weather girl. She is tall and lean and pretty, with long brown hair and a button nose. Even dressed in the somewhat conservative clothes required by morning news personnel, she looks youthful and vivacious. Something about her arouses a primal desire with him, fueled in no way by his sexual drought since his arrest last year.

He tries to will himself out of bed, to summon the energy required to exist, to get up and dressed and eventually head to the wedding. But dread has pinned him to the mattress, as though thick black sludge has clogged his veins. He can’t stop thinking about how fucking suffocating the wedding will be, how he will be interrogated about the trial and torn apart by a public who still considers him a murderer despite no charges ever being filed. How Stephanie's bridesmaids will whisper to each other when they think he’s out of earshot: I can’t believe she invited him, he’s crazy, he could kill her next. How his parents will suffer watching their son being publically shunned. Roger will leave the beach feeling depressed and depleted, even more so than he feels now.

A brisk knock sounds at the door of his apartment. Instinctively, Roger reaches for the baseball bat he keeps underneath his bed for protection. At almost nine in the morning, it’s not exactly too early for a well-intentioned visitor, but that’s just what they’d be counting on, isn’t it? He has no idea who “they” are, but he grapples with a constant fear some shadowy figure will appear at his doorstep one day to dispense some street justice. So he might as well be prepared.

With the bat clenched in his hands, Roger moves toward the door. He debates calling out “who’s there,” as it could be a harmless delivery man or a neighbor seeking a cup of sugar. But if the person on the other side of the door intends to hurt him, giving away the fact that he’s inside would be a bone-headed move. So Roger peers through the peephole just as another knock clatters against the door. He jerks back at the sound, but his brain has already recognized the face of the person standing there.

Roger unlocks the door and pulls it open. “Stephanie, what the fuck?”

Stephanie lets herself in as though she owns the place. She stops her stride when she notices the bat in Roger’s hands. “Heading for the batting cages?”

“Yeah, I’m the Mariners’ new center fielder.”

“Then you might wanna put on some clothes first, slugger,” Stephanie says, unfazed by his t-shirt and boxer shorts.

Roger grumbles to himself and returns the bat to its proper place under the bed.

Stephanie glances at the television. “Were you jerking off to the weather girl again?”

“I wasn’t—” Roger lets that one go. “What do you want?”

“I want you to come to the wedding.”

“I said I would, like, ten minutes ago. Why are you here?”

“To make sure you go through with it.” Stephanie throws open his closet door and sifts through his clothes with a practiced eye. Only Stephanie has the gall to treat him like this; thus she is the only person Roger has considered strangling on a somewhat frequent basis. He doesn’t know if this is fairly normal for siblings, or if this is just one more thing wrong with him.

“In light of recent events,” Roger says over the sliding and clashing of hangers, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to show up.”

Stephanie’s shuffling gains a bit of steam. “Fuck them. You’re my brother.”

“Yeah, exactly. It’s something people can ignore when it’s just you and them, but having me around is gonna affect their perception of you.”

“I didn’t invite anyone who thinks you’re guilty.” She pulls out a light blue suit from the closet and displays it. “Wear this.”

Roger shakes his head. “Too loud.”

“Too seventies,” Stephanie says as though reconsidering. She shelves the blue suit and goes in search of something else. “Besides, Dad won’t stand for anyone giving you grief on this, the day of his daughter’s wedding,” she says, doing her best Brando impersonation.

“He’s not Don Corleone. And he shouldn’t have to play referee on one of the happiest days of his life. Everything would be so much easier if I wasn’t around.”

Stephanie whirls to face him, her face contorted in anger and grief. “Don’t you say that! And don’t you dare pull that shit again.”

“This entire family has blown that way out of proportion,” Roger says with a sigh. “It was an accidental overdose.”

“Half a bottle isn’t an accident.”

“I was drunk!”

Stephanie inhales a breath, the way she does when she’s about to tear into him, but she simply lets it out and moves closer. She puts her hands on his shoulders and eases him onto the bed, sitting beside him. Her touch burns his skin, a side-effect of going so long without physical contact. “I wanted to keep this a surprise until you made it to the wedding, but what the hell. Meg will be there. She’s one of my bridesmaids.”

Roger gives her a blank look. The name isn’t familiar to him, but he’d almost forgotten about the wedding despite two weeks’ worth of reminders, so it’s a safe bet his memory isn’t super reliable.

“Meg Starke? The KIRO weather girl?” Stephanie throws out a hand in the direction of the TV, but the screen is showing a car commercial now.

“Bullshit. You don’t know someone on TV.” Though if anyone could, it would be Stephanie.

“We share an aerobics class. She’s very sweet. And limber.” Stephanie nudges him meaningfully.

“Are you trying to set me up?”

“What’s so wrong with that? When was the last time you even had a date?”

It’s one of the memories Roger wishes had crumbled into dust. Before the whole mess of the murder accusations and media firestorm, Roger had been dating Amy Ogden, a beautiful, intelligent upstart in the field of Washington state politics. She had loved him once, but considering how quickly she dumped him after he became a suspect, love probably didn’t factor into anything on her end.

Stephanie grimaces a little, realizing the question has hit a sore spot. “Sorry. But you’ll never get anywhere else if you stay in the same place. It’s been a a few months since the whole thing. Maybe people have moved on and forgotten.”

Roger isn’t sure a highly-publicized murder is something people just forget like a dentist’s appointment or the phone bill.

He wants to tell her that no one could ever love him now, that even if Meg likes him she will be bombarded with warnings by well-meaning friends and family. Stay away from that one, they’ll tell her, and maybe they’ll check in a little more frequently than normal, and Roger will have to pretend like none of it bothers him, because if he gets angry at their intrusion and silent accusations it’s proof he’s somehow violent and will inevitably kill Meg and dump her body in the woods. But if he has no reaction at all, that will make him seem guilty too, because wouldn’t an innocent man be upset that his girlfriend’s friends think he’s a murderer? And that will leave him with no way to be at all.

It feels like even his familial relationships have also been poisoned by the gossip surrounding him, but for Stephanie to demand his presence at her wedding must mean not all love is lost between himself and his family. If she wants her brother at her wedding, then she’ll get him.

The wedding is surprisingly understated for Stephanie’s extravagant tastes. Taking place along Madison Park Beach with a crowd of around fifty guests, it’s a bright, beautiful day for a wedding. Roger feels hot and overdressed in the light brown suit Stephanie picked out for him. He wanders across the grass until Mom and Dad hurry towards him, doing their best not to make a fuss.

“Roger,” Mom coos, embracing him tightly. “So glad you could make it.” Elaine Cowell was somewhat of a beauty in her youth, and she has aged gracefully, her dark hair just beginning to show streaks of grey. She's wearing a red and white dress Dad bought her almost fifteen years ago for an anniversary.

Roger hugs her, inhales the scent of her lavender shampoo. “I wouldn't miss it,” he lies.

Mom pulls back a little and sniffs at him. “Are you drunk?”

“I may have had a drink or two before I left.”

Mom sighs a small sound of disappointment, as if about to say something well-meaning but insulting.

Dad cuts her off at the pass by moving in and hugging Roger. With his slicked-back hair, Dad looks the part of an aging ‘50s greaser, and if he could cut the sleeves off his three-piece suit, he would. “Hey, kid. Good to see you.” To say Johnny Cowell was destroyed by the rumors surrounding his son would be overly dramatic, but looking at him now it's hard to argue the allegations didn't age him. Dad's once-dark hair is also showing signs of grey, and the lines around his eyes are deeper and more plentiful. But there are creases around his mouth that Roger swears weren’t there before.

Neither parent asks the inevitable follow-up questions: how’s life been treating you? Or what have you been up to since your suicide attempt? Either out of prudence or fear of a disappointing answer, Roger doesn’t know. In the arms of his father, Roger feels a jolt of something familiar: contentment? Love? Hope? He tries to hold on to it for just a while longer, but it’s gone, like ethereal wisps between his fingers as Dad lets him go.

“How ‘bout those Mariners?” Dad says. “I think they might have a shot this season.”

Baseball has a few months left until post-season, and it’s difficult to tell at this juncture which teams are headed for the World Series. But Roger knows Dad’s only trying to be friendly and get him talking. “If the Orioles play anything like they did last year, we’re in trouble.”

“Our pitching was garbage last season,” Dad agrees solemnly.

Led by his parents, Roger heads to the mass of white fold-out chairs set up on the grass. Guests mill about on the lawn, chatting and taking in the view of the water before the ceremony starts. Roger feels his nerves jangle, his stomach suddenly in his throat as though he’s dropped from the apex of a roller coaster. He breathes in deep, forcing the air down, focusing on the expansion and compression of his lungs and the duration of each breath, following the exhale to the very end. It's been a month, he thinks, trying to convince himself with the same rationale Stephanie had used earlier. Maybe people have moved on or moved away or just stopped giving a shit. He knows this is wishful thinking, the kind of thing you'd tell a child so as not to disillusion them.

Since becoming a murder suspect, every trip to the grocery store or the mailbox has become a grueling obstacle course of hostility and gross fascination. Even here, he is treated like a social leper. He is acutely aware of harsh gazes and stares in his direction, the sharp-edged whispers of: don’t look, but that’s him, can you believe Stephanie invited him?

As though knowing exactly what he needs, Roger’s parents sit on either side of him like human shields. While Stephanie may have eliminated from the guest list anyone who might cause a scene, she couldn’t weed out people who would stare and whisper to each other when they saw Roger, not unless she wanted to scratch the whole list. He is a gruesome wreck on the highway, and people are helpless against their own human nature of rubbernecking.

The ceremony itself is very beautiful. Stephanie wears a long, flowing white dress with sleeves poofy enough to require their own zip code. Ken Roseland, clad in a simple black and white tux, still has his blonde pompadour and winning smile; he looks like he belongs in a British synthpop band like Duran Duran or Kajagoogoo.

Roger recognizes Meg, the weather girl, in the line of bridesmaids. Like the others, she’s wearing a metallic silver and blue one-shouldered dress. Her hair is pulled up into a loose bun, wispy tendrils hanging down over her exposed collarbones. She’s one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen, and he has to divert his eyes, as though he’s corrupting her by the very act of looking at her.

The reception is held at a colorful pizzeria near the beach. Roger wants to head for the open bar, but his parents corral him to a table near the back. Stephanie and Ken are mingling with friends at other tables, so at least the guests’ focus is split down the middle between them and Roger. He is keenly aware of his pulse pounding in his throat.

“Have you given any thought to going back to school in the fall?” Mom asks, delicately, like there’s a stick of dynamite strapped to the table and the slightest argument might detonate it.

Roger had been studying law at the University of Washington before his entire life was blown apart. He’d been about a year shy of getting his degree; at the time, a year seemed like a breeze. Now, it might as well be a decade.

“You don’t have to go back, y’know,” Dad offers, as if attuned to Roger’s fears. “There are law schools all over the country who’d throw money at you to enroll.”

The thought of moving to another city or state is daunting and terrifying. While he may not be a social pariah in, say, Oregon or Florida, what’s to stop someone from digging up his past? And he would be alone there, without the comforting proximity of his family. As irritating as they can be sometimes, he knows they will not abandon him.

“It’s a lot to think about,” Roger says.

“What’s to think about? It’s one year,” Mom says. “I know the last few months have been hard, but lying in bed and doing nothing isn’t going to help.”

Dad gives her a pointed look, as if telling her to ease off. “Roger,” he says, “what your mother’s trying to say is we only want the best for you. We’re all hurting, but when a parent has to see their child in pain, knowing there’s nothing they can do…” His voice is raw with emotion, and Roger is momentarily uncomfortable, because Dad isn't known for open discussions of feelings. “I don’t know, maybe I could have done something.”

“Like what? Refuse to fix people's cars?” Roger doubts a mechanic would have been able to effectively protest this particular injustice. “There was nothing you could do. Don’t worry about it.”

Mom says, “If you need money for school, we’re happy to give.”

Roger shakes his head. “I can’t take your money.” At the beginning of the year, his parents put all their savings into a nice home in the mountains near Snoqualmie Ridge. While he doubts they’re financially hurting—with Mom being a juggernaut in the commercial real estate market—it seems unwise to take money that could go toward their mortgage or potential home repairs.

Dad smiles wistfully. “You and your sister have always been stubborn. I guess it’s in the genes.”

Roger scans the crowd for a familiar face to bail him out of this conversation. He catches Ken’s eye and supposes that’s good enough. Ken grins and weaves through the aisles, sliding into the booth in the empty space beside Roger. “Well, hey! I’m so glad you came, Rog’!”

Roger grimaces at the nickname, but at least his parents aren’t nagging him about school anymore. “Blame your wife.” It feels weird referring to Stephanie as someone’s wife, when he’s always known her as his obnoxious older sister. “She barged in to my apartment and picked out my suit. I think she might have threatened me.”

Ken laughs. “That sounds like her.”

“You two never could make it five minutes without bickering,” Mom says to Roger with a shake of her head, as though wondering what sins she must have committed in a past life to deserve him as a son. “It's like you were born an old married couple.”

“No, that's not a weird thing to say about your kids at all,” Roger says, frowning.

Ken puts a hand on Roger’s shoulder. To his credit, Roger doesn’t shrug it off. “You don’t mind if I steal Roger for a minute, do you?”

“Go right ahead,” Mom says.

Ken leads Roger over to the bar, where Roger immediately orders a gin and tonic. The bartender either doesn’t recognize him or is hiding her animosity in hopes of a good tip. Ken and Roger sit side by side. Roger thanks Ken for bailing him out. “It was getting intense back there.”

Ken chuckles, like he doesn’t understand why Roger might feel suffocated. “Intense? They’re your parents. You and Steph could do a lot worse.”

Roger isn’t in the mood for a lecture about how he ought to be grateful for his parents; he is grateful, but that doesn’t negate any frustration they make him feel. “So if you weren’t rescuing me from them, what did you want?” He tries not to sound confrontational, but he’s out of practice. Every question sounds like an accusation.

The bartender serves Roger his drink—he paid careful attention that she didn’t spit in it—and he thanks her. He swallows down about half the glass and pointedly fixes his attention on the television hoisted over the bar. It’s a baseball game: Red Sox vs. Mariners. 3-3 tie.

Ken says, “You know Stephanie better than anyone, right?”

“I don’t think you can ever truly know anyone.”

“You know what I mean. Can you give me some advice on how to not screw this up?” Ken looks pathetic and pleading, and Roger almost feels bad for him, as much as he can feel bad for anyone who isn’t himself.

“You want advice on keeping a good marriage? Ask my parents. As for Steph… she can be”—Roger searches for the word—”bossy. I’ve found it’s best to let her have her way on the small stuff. But navigating a sibling relationship and a marriage are two different things.”

Ken considers this, or maybe he’s just angling for a safe way to approach his next topic: “What happened between you and Amy?”

Roger glances away so Ken doesn’t see the pain that melts his features. “She couldn’t advance her career if she was involved with me. That’s something you have to be prepared for, you know. Being married to Stephanie makes you and me family. Can you handle being the brother-in-law of an accused murderer?”

Ken gives a dismissive laugh. “I know you didn’t do it. It doesn’t bother me.”

Of course it doesn’t, Roger thinks. You’re not the one getting harangued in the produce section by huge mustachioed men ranting about how you “should get the electric chair for killing that girl.” You’re not getting ‘murderer’ keyed into the side of your precious white Mercury Capri. You’re not the one who thinks your entire family would be better off if you were dead.

“And I love Steph more than anything,” Ken’s saying, oblivious to Roger’s moment of disconnection.

“Then what do you need my advice for?” Roger says, trying for comfortable teasing but probably sounding too brash.

“Good point,” Ken says, jostling him with an elbow. He excuses himself and leaves Roger with his thoughts. Alone now, Roger tries to focus on the game and ignore the clinking of glasses, the tapping of silverware, the excited chatter going on around him. But the more he pinpoints his focus, the faster his heart begins to race. His palms sweat when laughter erupts from a table behind him.

They’re all talking about you. They’re laughing at you. How dare you show your face here. Stephanie had to prune her guest list because of you. How many friends has she lost over those allegations? You ruin everything.

Roger downs the rest of his glass.

Oh yeah, drink more, you stupid alcoholic. That’ll fix everything. Maybe you really did kill that girl and you just don’t remember because you were shitfaced.

Roger orders another drink.

Mandy. Her name was Mandy Nelson, you selfish piece of shit. A young girl is murdered and all you can think of is how it affects you? You’re a piece of shit.

When Roger picks up the fresh glass, his hand is shaking. He swallows it in one long gulp.

“Mind if I join you?” One of the bridesmaids slides into the empty seat next to Roger. It’s Meg Starke, and somehow she is even more stunning up close, with perfect cheekbones and bright blue eyes.

For a moment Roger panics over how to respond. His charm is mostly off-the-cuff, successful in moments when he has nothing to prove and nothing at stake. But the charm doesn’t live here anymore, not since the Entity took over. Given that the voice in his head has taken up permanent residence there, it makes sense to give it a name. Maybe Roger will eventually make friends with the voice and give it a proper name, like Gary.

She’s looking at you. Say something, you fucking moron.

“If you don’t mind sitting next to Seattle’s favorite pariah.”

Way to go, dipshit. Downplay yourself. Girls love insecure men. You’re pushing her away. Which is good. Look what happens when you don’t. People get hurt. Mandy. Amy. Your parents. Even Stephanie.

“I don’t mind sitting next to Stephanie’s brother,” Meg says, correcting him. “She talks about you all the time. It’s great to finally meet you!”

Roger glances around to see if anyone’s staring at them. Surely someone must have noticed the gorgeous young weathergirl talking with the accused murderer. But everyone seems wrapped up in their own conversations and lavishing attention on the new bride and groom.

“I’m Meg, by the way,” she says, as though suddenly remembering he might not know her name. The bartender flits over to them, and Meg orders what sounds like six drinks but turns out to be just one. It’s an orange concoction served in a martini glass with a tiny straw and a paper umbrella. She takes a sip and says, “I’m starving. Do you mind if we get a table and order something?”

Roger tells her that he doesn’t, so they take up a table near the entrance—so Roger can flee if necessary. Meg orders a pizza with fontina cheese, crimini mushrooms, and sage. She stirs her drink with her straw. “Stephanie tells me you’re a lawyer?”

“Law student,” Roger corrects.

“You go to UW?”

“I did.”

Oh, that’s great. Just tell her you’re a dropout with zero life prospects. Real sexy. Idiot.

“Where did you go to school?” Roger asks, hoping to distract her from that disastrous answer.

“Florida State.”

“How’d you end up here?”

“Well, I grew up in Seattle. But I got a scholarship to go to FSU, so I moved there ‘til I graduated and came back here.”

“You miss it.” It’s not a question.

Meg gives him a sad smile. “I loved Tallahassee. You don’t realize how dreary this place is until you’ve been in the literal Sunshine State for four years.”

“Why’d you leave?”

“My dad works at KIRO, and he said he could get me the job as the weather presenter if I wanted it. The pay is good, but I think he was just lonely and wanted me back home. Since my parents split up, he probably wanted someone around, and I don’t have any siblings to fill that role, so…” She shrugs into silence, takes a long sip. “Can I be honest with you?”

Roger’s flattered she wants to tell him something personal. “I wouldn’t want you to be anything else.”

“I feel like a fraud. I mean, I’m not a real weather forecaster or anything. The only reason I even have this job is because the woman who did it before went on maternity leave. And our in-house forecaster isn’t what you’d call the photogenic type. I just read stuff off a teleprompter and point to a map.”

Meg’s confession disarms Roger a little, helping to put them both on common ground. “If that makes you a fraud, then what about the newscasters? All they do is sit at a desk and read off a teleprompter. At least you get to point at stuff.”

Meg laughs; it’s an enchanting sound. “I guess the job does have its perks.”

The pizza arrives, and Roger carefully scrutinizes it to ensure there are no sprinklings of saliva… or worse.

“What are you doing?” Meg wonders. It’s an understandable question. He probably looks like a maniac.

“Being careful.” He tilts his head, lifts the pizza with his knife to view it from a different angle against the light. “I made the mistake of going out to eat about a week or so after… Somebody spit on my burger.”

Meg screws up her face in disgust. “That’s horrible!”

“So you can understand if I’m a little paranoid.”

“Sure, but I work for one of Seattle’s biggest news stations. Even a whiff of a scandal like that and the health inspectors would be all over this place.”

Roger looks at her, cocks an eyebrow. “More perks.”

She laughs again, and Roger wants to hear that sound for the rest of his life. Deeming the pizza safe, Meg takes a slice. “Stephanie told me you were funny.”

“She did?” Roger can’t picture Stephanie talking about him enough that Meg would remember any of it.

“Well, she said you were funny sometimes. I guess you haven’t found much to laugh about lately. But I don’t think you did it.”

A bolt of optimism strikes Roger's heart without permission. He scrutinizes Meg’s face, searching for a sign of dishonesty. “What?”

Meg lowers her already-soft voice, leaning forward a bit. “I don’t think you killed that girl.” She watches his expression shift into suspicion. “You looked nervous, like you were waiting for me to bring it up, so I wanted to put you at ease.”

“By lying to me?”

“I’m not lying. And sure, that’s probably exactly what I’d say if I was. But why would I lie? What would I get out of it?”

“Information. A ‘scoop,’” he says, using air-quotes.

“I’m not a journalist, remember?”

“Sure, but they know I’d smell a journalist a mile away. So they send in someone friendly and disarming who could leak information. Let’s not forget you work for a news station.”

Meg doesn’t get angry or exasperated with him like he thought she might. “Slow down, Roger.” She looks at him with a gaze Roger hasn’t seen in quite a while: the look of a friend. “I didn’t come here to play wannabe journalist or anything. I’m here as Steph’s friend, remember? If it makes you feel safer, you can search me for a wire or recorder, or whatever you think I’m hiding.”

Roger knows better than to respond to that. As if he could actually take her up on the offer.

“But my job or where I work has nothing to do with why I’m here. I’m just a bridesmaid,” Meg says, making no move to keep Roger from leaving if he chooses to do so.

Roger supposes there’s no harm in talking to her as long as he doesn’t answer any questions about the miserable debacle.

Meg says, “Can I tell you a story? I know it’s gonna sound stupid, and I’m not trying to say what happened to me and what happened to you are the same, ‘cause I know it’s not. I guess I just want you to see where I’m coming from.”

Roger takes a slice of pizza for himself. Lately, he feels more in control when his hands are occupied. “The floor is yours.”

“During my senior year at FSU, I had this friend. Let’s call her Liz. She had transferred from UCF, and we liked the same things and had a few classes together, so we got along pretty well. I even invited her to join my sorority.”

Roger waits for the gut punch. He knows it’s coming. He wants to hear how badly Meg has been hurt. Not that he takes pleasure in someone’s suffering, but it would be nice to have someone who at least comes close to understanding his plight.

Meg tucks a tendril of hair behind her ear, and this movement jostles a shiny pink earring. “One of the classes I shared with Liz was a journalism class. So obviously we did a lot of papers and writing assignments. Our professor seemed to like what I was writing, and sometimes she’d use my assignments as examples for how to structure an essay or use transition sentences, y’know, stuff like that.” She takes a bite of pizza, chews slowly and swallows. “For our final, we had to write about the Vietnam War. I focused on how the cultural differences between the Americans and the Vietnamese contributed to the conflict.” Her voice turns hard. “So imagine my surprise when Liz and I turn in the same paper.”

Roger mulls that over around a mouthful of delicious pizza. “She stole your paper? How?”

“Well, we were friends. And there were nights when my roommate would be out partying or visiting her boyfriend, and I’d invite Liz over for a study night.” A scowl crosses Meg’s face. “The night before the paper was due, we were up late working on it. I fell asleep after I finished mine, and Liz must have copied it by hand. So we both turn in the same paper, but I’m the one who gets slammed for plagiarism.”

That takes Roger by surprise. “Didn’t the professor brag about your writing?”

“Oh, I didn’t tell you the most important part. Liz’s parents were super rich and donated money to a bunch of Florida colleges every year. If they flunked Liz for plagiarism, she’d whine and cry to Mommy and Daddy, and they’d threaten to pull their yearly charity to the school unless she got a passing grade. So they flunked me, and I had to graduate a semester late because of her.” Meg’s jaw tightens, and Roger almost fears she’ll break a tooth. “And of course it went on my record, so my next professor knew I was retaking that journalism class because I allegedly plagiarized my final paper. And that made him scrutinize me harder than anyone else in the class.” Her hands ball into fists, and she exhales an angry breath. She looks at Roger, and her expression softens, like she doesn’t think she has the right to be angry in front of someone who has arguably suffered worse. “I know it’s stupid. But at the very least, I know a little bit about the Scarlet Letter treatment.”

“What an awful thing to have in common,” Roger says.

Meg shrugs a sun-kissed shoulder. “I guess that’s part of the reason I came back here: to lick my wounds. To be around people who know I have a good heart.”

She made that whole thing up, the Entity tells him. You think a girl this beautiful has any idea what it’s like to be cast out and demonized?

But Roger’s gut tells him Meg’s anecdote wasn’t a fabrication. There was a ring of truth to it, and something about her reactions to talking about the details seemed authentic. “Considering this is the first time I’ve talked to a girl who wasn’t bagging my groceries or serving me drinks, I’d say we’re doing pretty well.”

“Your sister doesn’t count?”

“She’s family,” Roger says, dismissive. He takes a bite of pizza and wonders how to fill the gap in their conversation. Meg’s fingers play with the stem of her glass, and Roger is temporarily entranced. Suddenly, Meg’s attention diverts to something—or someone—behind him. He turns his head to look.

A breaking news report has replaced the Mariners game on the TV. A missing girl. Susan Thompson. A young, beautiful brunette. Her portrait is shown alongside the grim-faced news reporter. The sound is off, but everyone can read the bright blaring text underneath the girl’s picture: missing.

Fear grows inside of Roger, heating to a boil. About half of the heads in the restaurant turn to seek him out, glancing at the guilty-looking son of a bitch in their midst. He feels the prickle of their eyes on him. His ears, finely attuned to gossip, pick up the soft sounds of murmurs and whispers.

Roger is still watching the news report. He should stop. People will make something of that, use it as evidence against him in a silent, unwinnable trial in their minds. He quickly looks away.

“You alright?” Meg asks, but her voice is distant, like Roger is submerged in water. A creeping cold crawls over him, the familiar chill he gets when he's terrified. The room suddenly feels cramped. A cage.

A prison.

“I—I have to go,” Roger tells Meg, his voice shaking like a fault line. He leaves, almost running out of the restaurant, gasping for air. It takes him a couple tries to get the key into the driver’s side door of the Impala, but he manages. He gets onto the road and heads for home. His breath hitches in quick bursts until he’s sobbing aloud.

Boo fucking hoo, the Entity sneers, what are you crying about? You didn’t lose anybody. According to the public, you got away with murder. You’re the luckiest motherfucker alive.

Roger can’t even argue with the voice. His thoughts are fuzzy television static, but he’s aware he’s only operating the car on auto-pilot. He can’t drive like this.

Roger pulls over to the shoulder of the road to let the terror pass. He throws himself over the steering wheel, and his gasps for breath give way to deep sobs.

Stop it. Stop crying. You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re not even pulled off the highway, for fuck’s sake. You’re on a neighborhood through road, and all the suburban housewives are looking at you through the blinds and wondering who the sobbing moron is in his antique car. Until they recognize you and call the cops.

Roger’s sobs turn to hiccups as he tries to regain control of his breathing. But he can’t stop. Everything that’s been slowly leaking out of him since the allegations has combusted. His limbs feel both tense and limp, his heart hammering behind his ribs.

This is how it’s going to be. Forever. Get used to it, kid.

He cries for what feels like years, until his throat burns with fire. When his chest is empty and hollow, when his breathing is stable again, Roger starts the car and heads home.