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the ghost writer

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1| Funny thing, stories.

They begin somewhere, and they end somewhere, and sometimes, in the middle, they're more alive than the people who tell them.

 

2| The grey tile in the bathroom is slippery when wet, which seems to defeat the purpose, being the bathroom and all, and the idea of laying down a bath mat for traction doesn't occur to Mark for months, because ... well, because bath mats.

He's twenty-two years old and he's late. He's trying to balance his laptop on the edge of the sink, brush his teeth, and contemplate the merits of setting up a skeeball lane on his slick bathroom tile all at the same time, so you'll forgive him if he doesn't immediately notice that he has two new notifications. They're waiting for him in the corner of the screen, like they'd crept in overnight, appearing the moment he finally stopped waiting for them.

You and Erica Albright are now friends.

Erica Albright has commented on your Wall.

For a beat, he just stares. And then he jabs his toothbrush into his cheek to free both his hands.

 

3| You see, there's evidence there if anyone cares to look close enough. It's like Sean said; even if you somehow manage to live your life like the Dalai Lama, they'll make shit up, and Mark may not be an exiled religious leader or committed to philanthropic nonviolence, but you've got to know what you're looking for if you're going to find it.

So here it is: have you ever seen Mark write something down?

You've seen him doodle, you've seen him create columns, and you've seen him type at a keyboard until the letters were worn off the keys, but have you seen him take a pen and create lines that become letters, letters that become words, words that become sentences, sentences that become ideas? There's power in that kind of act of creation. There's power in language; vast, tappable quantities of it.

And were you there? Did you see his face? When Erica looked up at him in the bar and she said, "the Internet isn't written in pencil, Mark, it's written in ink," did you see the absolute, frozen terror on his face, the split second before he tilted his head and turned it into righteous anger, turned it into hurt?

There's enough evidence to condemn him. Of course there is, because it's so much easier to condemn someone than it is to try and understand them.

To understand Mark, you have to understand his fear of the written word.

To do that, you need Erica Albright.

 

4| Her Facebook profile picture must be a couple months out of date, because the Erica that shows up on his screen has short hair that slopes forward to frame the line of her jaw, feathery and frizzing a little on one side. She leans forward into the webcam, grainy and pixelated (because this is still in the days before Skype, and webcams are still the height of video conferencing technology,) her chin on her hands.

"What's this about, Mark?" she asks, and the video catches and lags for a moment, distorting her voice. "What do you want?"

Mark latches onto that, because picking apart the inconsistencies in other people's language has always been so much easier than actually communicating with them. Why bother to use language at all if you're not going to respect it?

"What makes you think I want something?" he goes, hackles rising. "Why can't I just be trying to reconnect?"

"Oh, I do believe you're trying to reconnect, Mark," says Erica, lifting her eyebrows earnestly. "I just refuse to believe there isn't some ulterior motive for it. If all you wanted from me was validation that we're capable of moving on, then you would have just left it at my accepting your Friend Request. So," she drops her hand to the desk; it disappears out of the video frame, but he hears the thunk of her high school class ring hitting the tabletop. "What can I do for you today, Mark?"

"If I sent you something," Mark starts, and he has no idea how the tone of his voice translates through her speakers, but she straightens up, regardless, her eyes going a little wide. "Would you read it?"

She studies him for a long beat, then glances around her room, like she's looking for a distraction. "Are we talking, like," she says to something to the left of the frame. "The manuscript of your debut novel and you want my fantastic editing skills, or --"

"I mean read it," he corrects. "Out loud."

"Oh, Mark," she replies, horrified. "No."

 

5| When Mark was four, almost five, his mother came into the living room and folded herself down onto the carpet next to him to ask him if any of his friends would like to come over for his birthday party. How about his best friends?

"Don't be stupid, Mom," Mark said immediately, putting his crayon down so that he could reach over and straighten out the toe of her sock so that it fell over her toes like it's supposed to. "Edmund and Eustace are in Narnia. They're much too busy to come to birthday parties."

He got in trouble, of course, for using the word "stupid," which meant he wasn't allowed to play outside for a whole week, so when he finally was allowed to put on his sweater and his Big Bird boots, he took off across the frosted lawn as soon as he finished breakfast, where his parents were still puzzling over where he'd even gotten his hands on the Chronicles of Narnia; Christian sacrificial allegories were kind of heavy material for four-year-olds. He ran three houses down and across the street, where Erica Albright lived with two striped cats and a big book full of pictures and words that she likes to touch with her fingertip, like she's casting a spell and the finger is her wand.

She's six years old, and she knows how to read, which Mark thinks is just the most magical thing. His parents are teaching him letters and everything, which is nice, but you can't do much with letters, so Erica is teaching him about words. Except they're stuck, because she keeps telling him the "e" on the end of "Life" on their cereal box is silent, and Mark thinks she's just being silly. Why would any letter want to be silent?

Mark's favorite thing in the world (besides chocolate chip cookies with extra big chocolate chips, because, well ... because chocolate) is when Erica reads, because something happens when Erica reads out loud.

It's like that time Mark's big sister took a Mentos and dropped it into a bottle of Coke that one time on the pier. It's like, there's something about the way a bound book looks, propped open in Erica's hands, and the words on the page, little clusters of letters huddling together in friendship, and her voice that just ... makes stories come to life. When Erica reads, sweet-faced and sweet-voiced, things come out of the books, as loud and explosive and real as Coke fizzing out of a bottle.

The first cat the Zuckerbergs ever owned was named Ginger, and she came out of the first book Mark asked Erica to read for him, a simple cardboard contraption with chewed-on corners called I Like Cats. Ginger has cartoonishly large eyes, a mouth shaped into a permanent smile, and Mark's mother remarks admiringly that the pattern of mottled patches in her fur resemble letters, isn't that curious.

Erica reads out of Stellaluna, and Mark comes straight over every day so they can watch Mama Bird feed baby Stellaluna crickets to turn her into a good bird. But then the baby birds grow up and fly away, taking Stellaluna with them, so Erica reads Verde instead.

Ms. Albright, it turns out, really hates snakes, and Mark and Erica hide downstairs while she cries and baffled Animal Control ask her how an enormous green Amazonian python wound up in her bathtub.

"I don't know," sobs Ms. Albright, which make Mark and Erica start to cry because she's crying and that's really upsetting and they're scared and they're sorry.

They grow older, and Erica gets better at it; they won't read out anything they don't want to get caught with, like pirates or dragons, and what they do read out become more solid, more believable, and they stay longer. When they're six and eight, respectively, and Mark's reasonably confident he's got the letters thing down, he binds together a book made out of construction paper and staples and glue, and asks Erica to read it. The cake she reads out lasts them six days of careful rationing, and with every bite they take, sugary icing and increasingly stale cake made of ink and voice, they quiver with possibilities.

Mark's pen and Erica's silver tongue.

They could create anything.

 

6| Just as children have the capacity for immaculate kindness, they also have the capacity for horrific cruelty, and when Mark is ten and Erica is twelve, they learn that not only can they read things out of books, they can read other people into them.

The school, their parents, the local newspaper, everyone, they all keep on saying, isn't it strange, isn't it sad, the way those children kept on disappearing.

Oh, they say, they were such good children, so bright and attentive and spirited, and their families are just desperate for them to come home.

"It's always easiest for them to say nice things about people when they're gone," says Erica sagely as she watches him write in a wide-ruled spiral notebook, touching his arm, careful of the Indian burn they'd given him just four days before.

 

7| Mark is twenty-two now, and Erica is twenty-four, and he's late, he's late, for a very important date, where he's going to be signing away $600 million and change. He imagines the "and change" is going to be considerably more, but whatever, that's not even the important part, although he's going to get a lot of people from Finance frowning at him. Mark's just glad that Eduardo and the Winklevosses waited until Facebook was so fucking lucrative that if they really wanted to, they could shuffle two multi-million dollar lawsuits around and claim the money was spent on office supplies and it still wouldn't make much of a noticeable dent in Facebook revenue. It was very considerate of them to time it like that.

"No," says Erica again, her face twisted. "You made this bed, you lie in it. I'm not going to read your friend into a twisted horror story just so you can live with your guilt!"

"That's now what I'm asking at all!" Mark retorts, hotly. "God. No! Do you really think I'm that kind of person?"

"I don't know what kind of person you are, Mark," she goes.

"Yes, you do. You've known me since before I even remember. You know exactly what kind of person I am, or you wouldn't have lied under oath when they came to depose you!"

"Mark, I remember reading school bullies into arid deserts, leaving them to fend for themselves against rattlesnakes and flies that would never stop biting, and not being able to get them back out again. I remember your imagination and your need to be the master of your own universe and how it scared me, so whatever sick world you're going to ask me to read your enemies into, I want no part of it. I've never even met these guys."

"I don't want to read Eduardo into it just to make him disappear," Mark retorts. The sting of the implication hits hard at that soft spot right below his sternum, makes his vision turn to static in the corners, and he hears himself snap out, "If you're not going to look at what I wrote, then can you at least put him back where you found him? He probably has a happier ending, wherever it is you read him from."

Erica stills. Mark watches her turn in her chair slowly, her face wiped clean of expression.

"Mark ..." she says slowly. "Mark, is that what you think I did? You think I read Eduardo out of a story and gave him to you like some sort of consolation prize?" The answer must be written all over his face, because she goes, wonderingly, "Oh, Mark."

 

8| Erica got to do everything first; puberty, high school, kissing boys, driving, the punch-the-air feeling of getting accepted into college. By the time Mark got around to doing those things, it wasn't nearly as cool, because Erica got to all of them before and he didn't have anything new to tell her.

"Did you apply early-acceptance anywhere?" she asks him over Thanksgiving break, his senior year. She lies flat on her belly on his bedspread, flipping through the pages of his notebook, which is half-filled with nonsensical notes from class and half-filled with words meant for her tongue, quivering in their narrow lines and Mark's bleeding fountain pen, waiting for Erica to bring them to life.

"Harvard," he answers absently, not looking up from his laptop screen. The problem with flipping off Microsoft and uploading an mp3 player to the Internet is that it makes him the one responsible for answering belligerent Help e-mails. He doesn't have the patience for this. Doesn't anybody bother applying a little critical reasoning anymore, it's not that hard. "We'll be in the same city."

He can tell she's looking at him. Her eyes are a weight on his back. "Do you think you'll get in?" she asks curiously.

"Is it supposed to be hard?" he asks over his shoulder, and clicks away.

 

9| Mark asked Erica to marry him when he was eight, and she said yes, and they had a wedding with laurels of autumn-colored maple leaves and rings made out of supermarket twist-ties, because that was what they wanted to have, so why not.

He asked her to the school dance when he was fourteen, and the next year, for her senior prom, she asked him; she was the only girl who brought a sophomore as a date, and the only people who cared that Erica was taller than Mark then were people who didn't matter, so. When he starts dating her for real, holding her by the ribs and kissing her mouth every night before he goes home, three houses down and across the street, his sister slurps the last of her milk from the bottom of her cereal bowl and says, "That is completely new information," in her most underwhelmed voice.

His father scratches at his beard before suggesting, "Don't you think you should try seeing other people before you start a relationship? You have been joined at the hip since you were children."

Mark gives him a lizard-like look. "Why?" he goes, baffled. "That implies that we have tunnel vision, and that if we see other people, we won't date each other. That implies there's someone better out there. There isn't. Why would we waste our time."

Because there's no one else out there who knows what Erica can do, no one else who knows how amazing it is to listen to her read. He adores her now as much as he did when he was four, and fourteen, and it's ridiculous to think that he won't adore her the same way when he's forty.

Easily, without any effort whatsoever, Mark can imagine marrying her and spending the rest of his life side-by-side with her, living the life that Mark constructs out of ink and Erica reads into being. The two of them, equal forces of co-creation; the masters of their own story.

And then he sits across from her in a bar in Cambridge and hears her say, "I have no intention of being friends with you," and has no idea what he did wrong.

 

10| And then he publishes that Erica Albright is a bitch.

And then he publishes that Eduardo Saverin is the co-founder and CFO of Facebook.

And then he learns what it's truly like to lose control of your own story, even as it's being written underneath you.

 

11| The opposite of love isn't hate, it's apathy, and almost without pain, almost without noticing it at all, Mark Zuckerberg loses his best friends, one-by-one, and before long, he's sitting in the corner of the deposition room, typing as Marilyn Delpy eats her salad and reads a Jodi Picoult paperback. He has everything and nothing at all.

 

12| Mark steeples his fingers over his brow, so that she won't be able to see his eyes. On the edge of his desk, his phone vibrates, hard enough to send it inching towards the edge, threatening to fall. It's either his lawyers, or Chris, calling on behalf of his lawyers. He needs to leave the apartment. He needs to sign the settlement. He has somewhere he needs to be.

"I never," says Erica quietly, earnestly. She leans in, so the webcam is just an unflattering, up-close portrait of her face and not much more. "I never read Eduardo out of anything. He's real. He's made of stardust, like you and me, not ink and paper."

"He seemed too good to be true," Mark mumbles. "The only people who've ever liked me and enjoyed my company for the sake of it are you, and then the people we created, because they had no choice. I assumed --"

"No," she says, firm. "You found Eduardo, all on your own, and he found you. You did that on your own."

He straightens up at that, shaking out his shoulders and settling them back. "And now I've lost him. I just ... I wanted ..." He locks his jaw, and sends her a pleading look.

She tilts her head, like she's listening to something far-off. "What's in the story you want me to read?" she asks slowly. "The one you want to read him into?"

"A happy ending," says Mark instantly. "I wanted him to live the rest of his life in a wold where he got everything he ever wanted. Here and now, he's suing me for the money, he's fighting me for his dignity, and we're going to settle somewhere in the middle, somewhere completely unsatisfactory, but I can do so much better than just settling. And for that, I need your help. I need you. Erica."

Something goes soft in the corners of her eyes; it's a look that reminds him of how she looked when they watched Stellaluna learn to fly like a bird, wobbly and squinting into the sunlight. He can see it, even though the webcam quality is gritty.

"What brought this on?" she wants to know.

Unbidden, because his is the mind that thinks of everything, he thinks of a dozen different things all at once: the way he could always reliably find Eduardo at a table in the student center between his ten o'clock and one o'clock class, and the way his face lit up when Mark sat across from him; the time he pulled Eduardo's button-down shirt up off the floor, distracted and cold and staring down three dry-erase boards, and didn't remember until Eduardo let himself in and did a double-take at the sight of him; the horrible, heart-stopping moment when Eduardo said, I got punched by the Phoenix, and Mark realized, for the first time, that Eduardo's life continued on even when Mark wasn't there to witness it; and, back when none of that really mattered, how comfortable it had been, leveraging his bare feet against his comforter so he could lick at the soft spot at the roof of Eduardo's mouth, just to make him convulse with laughter and put a hand on Mark's hip to steady himself so they could kiss more -- it's a sensation he remembers clearly, something like warmth, like a deep, well-still pool of happiness that Mark could feel all the way down to the ends of his toes and deep inside his chest.

Back then, he didn't know that love was something that just happened. He thought of it more as something you made, like ink and paper and the binding of a book, and he couldn't recognize it. He couldn't recognize it until it was gone.

Mark looks down at his nails, closing his eyes briefly against the overwhelming onslaught of it. "It was something Marilyn said," he murmurs. "About how I was the devil of my own creation myth."

Erica huffs softly. She looks right at him, brown-eyed and sweet-faced, same as she was when she was five and she said guess what, I can do something really cool, want to see? and she says, knowingly, "If I read Eduardo into a story where he got everything he wanted, I would have to read you into it with him."

"You could," Mark offers, neutral. "You could do that."

"No, I couldn't," she returns. "Because you don't need me to create anything for you. You brought Facebook to life, and you did that on your own. You never needed me."

 

13| He takes the pen and he signs the papers; lines that make letters, letters that make words, words that become a name and become an idea and a promise, and he looks up. Eduardo looks back. There could be other people in the room, but they're made of no more substance than the white blank space at the end of a page.

The story doesn't end here.

 

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jamais fin