It was early in the morning of the day that Megan Bishop’s world ended. Silver light angled through the cedars and pines of the Washington Cascades. Where it reached the forest floor, moss, ferns, and salmonberry appeared to shine with an inner verdant glow. A stream muttered in the stillness.
Megan ran down a narrow footpath paralleling the creek. She was small enough that strangers often mistook her for a child, and her soft, rounded face and large dark eyes only made it harder to be accepted as an adult. Some things couldn’t be helped, but over the course of her undergraduate studies, she had planned and implemented an exercise program that had rendered her light and lean. Rebooting the program, feeling the tone return and the weight fall off, was all part of the healing. Her feet were sure like a deer and her raven ponytail bounced jauntily.
Something crashed through the brush down near the stream. For all the racket, it might easily have been a black bear foraging for berries. She wasn’t that lucky. It was her mom’s dog—her dog now—pursuing some intriguing smell. When he was on a mission, stopping to call him back to the trail was pointless. She ran on. The farther she left him behind, the sooner his pack animal instincts would overcome his curiosity and compel him to join her.
The trail contoured above a pond and branched near the outlet. To the left, a short spur dropped down to the intake of a penstock, which fed a small hydroelectric generator supplying the inholding’s two houses with off-the-grid electricity. Crossing the stream by the powerhouse shack, Megan entered the final stretch. She broke from the woods, ran past the garden shed and the old Subaru Outback to the front of the cabin, which faced Hemlock Lake. Unslinging her pack, she sat down on the side porch steps, and waited for the dog.
He bounded out of the forest. With a massive head, a black face, and shaggy auburn fur, he looked like a cross between a bear and a Saint Bernard. He easily outweighed Megan by more than half. He let out a thundering bark and loped toward her.
Megan cried out, “Help! Help! A horrible Heffalump!”
Heffalump, a Leonberger by breeding and a puppy by temperament, gallumphed up to Megan and licked her face. She pushed him back and scratched him behind the ears. He pushed in to nuzzle her, filled with goofy dog ecstasy. Megan smelled something horrid and corrupt.
“What did you roll in? Do I want to know?”
Heffalump barked in reply.
“I don’t know how Mom and Dad put up with you. I really don’t. You’re a big, smelly brute. Yes, you!” Megan said, mussing the fur between his ears.
She removed her shoes and led the dog down to the rocky lakeshore. The water’s clarity was startling, as if it were born of some exotic matter whose only property was to bend and reflect sunlight. The lake floor dropped off sharply through turquoise and indigo into darkness. Megan waded in, carefully stepping across the stones. Heffalump leaped in, his splash the loudest sound in the basin. The ripples spread away from the shore. In time, they would lap against the sides of the float tube supporting an early-morning angler who had put in from the small state park across the lake.
Megan stayed in the shallows while Heffalump paddled about. She called him in and worked the water through his fur, stopping to sniff her hands before resuming the scrubbing. Later she would corral him in the shower for a more thorough decontamination. First she would practice her yoga and do some actual work.
She spread out the mat on a narrow strip of lawn between the front porch and the slope down to the lake. One small area, near the far end of the porch, was both flat and sunny. Megan began her sun salutation. After weeks of practice in the solitude by the lake, she had reunited with the balance and flow of the asanas and pranayama, her poses and breath.
Yoga, dog decontamination, procrastination, and lunch behind her, Megan sat down at the table in the dining area. Heffalump remained a bit rank, so she parked him on the porch while she confronted The Thing on the Screen. Her laptop held open windows to the vastness her master’s project. MetaServer was her adviser’s grand design, but Megan had finished coding a vital subsystem last semester. Documenting her work stretched before her. The finish line lay megabytes beyond her blinking cursor, but she could get there while she was away from campus, which was why Professor Parsatharathy had signed off on Megan’s academic leave. That, and sympathy.
Megan knew from the counseling sessions that her inertia was a symptom of the depression. Pressing the keys in the right order would be as therapeutic for her mind as retreating to the lake had been for her body, but the gray ghost behind her eyes taunted her. Documentation was an empty exercise. Her code worked. If only Heffalump would stop barking…
“Heff! Hush!” she shouted. Through the screen door, she heard him thump across the front porch. He resumed barking. Out the window, she saw him charging down the road. She looked back down. The word processor waited patiently for her next keystroke. It would have to keep waiting. The stupid dog had a big nose for trouble. Heffalump would be lucky to reach the ripe old age of seven. Megan headed back to the kitchen and out through the mudroom.
A cloud of dust and a diesel rumble rose from the stream gully that divided the Bishops’ property from the Eckloffs’. A FedEx delivery van rolled up with Heffalump barking alongside. Megan waited for the dust to settle before approaching. The FedEx guy peered at Heffalump through the narrow window in the truck’s door.
“I have a delivery for Megan Bishop,” he shouted. “Is this the right place?”
“Yeah, I’m Megan. Heff, settle down!” She grabbed the dog by his collar, a symbolic gesture, given Heffalump’s weight advantage. The FedEx guy disappeared into the back of the van. He returned with an armful of priority mailers. He looked from Megan to the dog, and back again.
“Heffalump, sit!” she said. Heffalump sat and commenced panting.
The driver said, “They all need signatures.”
Megan said, “Don’t worry. He’s harmless.”
The driver opened the door. He scanned the first envelope and handed it to her. She signed the datapad.
Megan studied the return address. “I don’t get it. Who are these people? And how did you get out here? This is a private road.”
“The Eckloffs gave us a frequency to call on,” the driver said, hooking his thumb toward a walkie-talkie lying on the dashboard. “They usually just meet me at the gate. When I said I had stuff for you, Mrs. Eckloff let me drive on in.”
“I didn’t order anything,” Megan said sourly as she accepted another envelope.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” said the driver, raising his hands.
“Don’t worry. I don’t even believe in guns.”
The driver laughed. “Who needs one with a dog like that?”
“Heff’s a Leonberger. Like a Saint Bernard that doesn’t drool. He was my folks’. Now he’s my giant dog food bill. Aren’t you, Heff?”
They settled into a rhythm of scanning and signing.
“Here’s the last one,” said the driver. “I hope it’s good news.”
“Thanks.” Megan gathered the mail under one arm and led Heffalump back to the porch. The FedEx truck made a three-point turn and trundled down the road. She waited until the dust settled before letting the dog loose.
She piled the mailers on the dining table. Heffalump lay down next to her and rested his head on crossed paws. His eyes were on Megan as she unzipped the first mailer. Inside was a picture of a smiling boy, who appeared to be about nine years old, and a handwritten letter in elegant cursive.
God has sent you, His special angel, to deliver our son Raymond from the Devil’s cancer…
Megan stopped reading and set the letter down by the picture. She picked out another mailer from the middle of the stack. Behind a cover page were an abstrusely worded letter and page after page of impenetrable legalese. She set that one farther aside.
The next one came off the top of the stack. It bulged in the middle. Inside she found a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills and a note with a simple message followed by a phone number in an unfamiliar area code.
HELP ME AND THERE WILL BE MUCH MORE
Megan’s hands shook. Heffalump whimpered in sympathy. The next letter was laser printed and formatted like an ordinary business letter. After the headings and salutation, it veered off in the same bizarre direction.
I am writing to you in hopes that you might consider sharing your CIF-117 with me. My name is John. I am forty-eight years old and in the terminal stages of metastatic abdominal cancer.
Megan could not read further. She opened up the next mailer and found a CD. Written on the back in blue Sharpie:
Megan, hear our plea!
Who had a CD player these days? Then she remembered that the Subaru had a player.
She was being trolled. Pranked by some message-board idiots with a system for spoofing FedEx. The money must be fake. Had she crossed some hacktivist group on social media? She couldn’t remember doing so, nor imagine why they would wait until she had been offline for so long to strike. No, but it still had to be a prank. How far did it go?
At one end of the spectrum squatted a small cabal of trolls who, having failed to get a response online, had set about trying to top one another with these mailings. If she got the deliveries blocked, the trolls would soon get bored and move on. At the other end, one or more trolls had injected this misinformation into the internet. “Oncologists HATE her!” “This ONE SIMPLE TRICK CURES CANCER!” It was the ultimate clickbait. It had infected real people with the cruelest of false hopes. She might spend the rest of the summer struggling to contain the damage, racing to get ahead of the lies, fighting social media spot fires, pleading with editors and forum moderators to expunge this crazy anti-truth. It might never go away. The first question in every job interview might be “Hey, what about this cancer thing?”
Her heart rate raced into the fat-burning range. She was chasing a solution and running through worst cases before she understood the problem. She knew better. Assuming the problem had originated on the internet, its shape would become clear when she got online and applied her Google-fu. With no mobile signal this far into the mountains, Megan would have to go into town to connect. While she was there, she would find a FedEx office and get them to block further harassment. The plan calmed her.
She returned the letters and the fake money to their envelopes and stuffed the lot of them and the CD into her knapsack. She needed her wallet and her phone, both of which were languishing in her bedroom. Megan ran through the checklist in her head. She was ready to load Heffalump up and drive into town.
Heffalump stood by the car, wagging his tail. When Megan lifted the Outback’s hatch, the mountain of fur jumped right in. The air freshener Megan’s mother had used to combat the dog musk had long since gone dry. The car smelled of Heffalump. Megan drove slowly, keeping the dust down until she passed the Eckloffs’ place. Theirs were the only two houses this far out, a small inholding surrounded by state forest and a vast timber farm run by an out-of-state conglomerate. The gate stood open. Megan pulled through. She hopped out and swung the gate closed. She looped the heavy chain and opened her link on the daisy chain of padlocks. There was one for the Bishops, one for the Eckloffs, and a final lock for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Each user could open the gate without needing to share keys with the others. She snapped her hasp closed and tugged the lock to verify it had set.
Megan sped down the narrow road. She slid her hand inside the knapsack, groping for the mystery CD. She turned on the stereo. Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 1 flooded the car. She swapped the mystery CD in. New age music, like the kind her mother had used for meditation, faded in. Then a woman spoke, her voice weighted with fatigue, each word a step through drifted snow.
The woman said, “Megan, dear Megan, you don’t know me, but I can see from your picture that you’re a warm, generous, beautiful person—”
Megan stabbed the eject button and plucked the disc from the player like it was red-hot. Who were these people? Why were they going to this much trouble? The blast of a horn yanked her eyes back to the road, where a UPS truck was bearing down on her. They swerved onto opposing shoulders, passing each other by inches. Megan slammed on the brakes. She checked the rearview mirror and saw the truck’s brake lights flare. Megan was not in the mood to receive more packages. She mashed the accelerator. The all-wheel-drive spat gravel as it launched her down the road.
A succession of dirt roads and a few miles of pavement later, she reached the edge of the mobile network. She pulled off by a double-wide that had a small stable next to it. Heffalump barked at the horse, who snorted in reply and resumed grazing. Megan urged the dog to hush, rolled down the window, and braced herself for a backlog of text messages, a flurry of social media alerts, and various numbered badges on her apps. She hadn’t been on the network for nearly two weeks.
The apps were eerily quiet. The only notification was a text message from her carrier informing her that her account had been suspended and her phone could only place emergency calls. It urged her to contact customer support via the company’s website or the nearest store. It apologized for the inconvenience and thanked her for her business. She launched a few of her favorite apps. Each complained, with varying degrees of politeness, that it could not connect to the internet. She rebooted the phone. The internet was still broken. This was bad. She set the phone down and resumed the drive into town. Heffalump barked goodbye to the horse.
The road descended into the Stillanomish Valley and ended at the state highway in downtown Tanner, a wide spot along the mountain highway with a handful of stores. Some of these served the locals; others catered to people from the lowlands taking the highway to outdoor adventures upriver. Megan had done business at only two places in Tanner. The grocery store had provided last-minute supplies for family trips to the cabin. The small hippie café was the first espresso when you came down from the mountains. It earned bonus points for having free Wi-Fi and being dog friendly.
She ordered an iced mocha. The barista gave Megan a long look before turning away to make the drink. Coffee in hand, Megan retreated with Heffalump to the patio out back. She found an Adirondack chair in the shade of a portable canopy. Her phone connected to the café’s network. The phone exploded with life as a cascade of notifications filled the small screen. Her in-boxes brimmed. Her social networks reported insane numbers of connection requests.
Her finger moved to the Slack icon. It was the most focused and private of her social networks. She had teams there for the MetaServer project and for a group of friends who shared a house in North Seattle. She stopped. Her departure for the cabin had been dramatic. Emotions had run high. If she opened any of these apps, even Slack, messages would be marked as seen. People would expect replies. She couldn’t handle bonus drama right now.
She opened the browser to Google. She typed in “WTF?” and got predictably correct, but useless, results. She remembered one of the letters saying something very specific, bordering on technical. Letters and numbers. She fished the mailer out of her knapsack. There it was: CIF-117. Google’s response was more useful this time, registering more than eleven thousand results. The top result for the news tab was an article from the New York Times science section dated twelve days prior.
What We Know About Raether’s Enzyme
Megan clicked the link and scrolled through the story. Researchers at the University of Chicago medical school had been studying a group of people who had extremely high risk factors for cancer but remained free of the disease. A statistically improbable number of the subjects shared the rare AB-negative blood type. Focusing on this subgroup, the researchers had identified a previously unknown biomaterial that caused tumor cells for all known cancers to self-destruct. The new material, dubbed Carcinoma Immune Factor 117, was produced in the livers of the subjects and circulated in their blood. It conferred complete immunity. The study, which had only tested the factor on lab-cultivated cancer cells, did hold out hope that CIF-117 extracted from immune donors could cure cancer in ordinary people.
The day after the announcement in the pages of Nature, one of the study’s subjects stepped forward. Thomas Raether was sixty-seven years old. Years of smoking had left him with emphysema. He had retired from naval shipyard work with a herniated disc. That same shipyard work had exposed him to asbestos and radiation, but he had no cause to join the subsequent class-action lawsuits, because unlike so many of his coworkers, he had dodged cancer’s bullets. Or so it had seemed. The new truth was that he possessed natural armor against cancer. If he entered a damaged nuclear reactor, the radiation would burn him. His hair would fall out and his bone marrow would be ravaged, but his damaged cells would never rise up in lethal rebellion. Thomas Raether was immune to cancer.
In a press conference, Raether shared the stage with fourteen people who had volunteered to be infused with CIF-117 extracted from his liver. Each had been in a desperate struggle with distinct types of cancer. All were now cancer-free. An accompanying press release featured a portrait of the group. It had the hyper-real coloring popular with cast photos of blockbuster movies. Raether stood at the center, looking serenely into the camera, an arm around a young girl wearing a rainbow head scarf, who hugged him like he was her grandfather. The people he had rescued all gazed at Raether with smiling adoration. The media celebrated Raether’s altruism and renamed CIF-117 to Raether’s enzyme. The scientific community quibbled that CIF-117 wasn’t precisely an enzyme, but through this act, Raether had claimed the miracle in the minds of the press and the public.
Megan sat still and her breathing grew shallow. Heffalump studied her, his brow furrowed with canine worry. Megan’s blood type was AB-negative, as was—had been—her father’s. It was the rarest of rare, a recessive gene that had also come down from somewhere on her mother’s side. The article had said not all AB-negative people produced Raether’s enzyme, but the blood type, combined with distinctive biomarkers, was the best way to identify likely R-positives, as those blessed with the immunity were quickly named.
Megan returned to the search results. Five entries down and dated two days ago, a major tech site had a story whose title chilled her further.
Hacked Medical Records Dox R-positives
A faction of black-hat hackers calling themselves the Heralds of Thanatos (HoT for short) had raided online medical records searching for likely R-positives. They had published their victims’ names, addresses, birthdays, and social security numbers on the web. They claimed their actions were intended to illustrate the insecurity of the medical IT infrastructure and the dangers of putting such confidential information in contact with the internet. Other hackers quickly took up the cause, adding information from driver’s license databases, e-mail addresses, social media profiles, and pictures from various sources to the victims’ ever-growing online dossiers. The data had been uploaded to BitTorrent and replicated across a multitude of computers. The predators of the internet called exposing people’s private information “doxing” and considered it great sport.
She entered her name into Google. Her face was first in a row of pictures at the top of the results. It matched her profile picture in the corner of the screen. Below the entry points to Facebook and LinkedIn, the doxing sites began in earnest. She had gone from being an obscure graduate student to search-engine optimized.
Megan set the phone down and drew her knees up to her chest. Heffalump rose and leaned in to lick her face. She let him, then hugged him close and buried her face in the thick fur of his neck. He did not struggle, but stood there, being strong for her. Her dog’s warmth revived her.
She whispered, “It’s okay, Heff. Not everyone who might have this thing really has it. We’ll have some lunch, and then I’ll call Dr. Clarke. There’s got to be some tests they can run.”
An amended plan in hand, Megan ducked inside.
“Can I use your phone?” she asked the barista. The woman gave her a puzzled look. Megan explained, “Something’s wrong with my phone. I just need to call my doctor in Everett. Please?”
“Sure, okay,” said the barista. She offered Megan a grimy cordless handset.
“Can I take this out back? It’s kinda private.”
The barista nodded. Megan went back to the patio to make the call. The receptionist said Dr. Clarke had been hoping Megan would call. Would four this afternoon work? Megan consulted the map app, which was optimistic about the travel time. With the appointment set, Megan said goodbye.
The barista approached, smartphone in hand.
Megan offered her the café’s handset and her thanks. The barista dropped the phone into her apron pocket and raised her Samsung.
“That’s such an amazing dog,” the barista said. “Can I take a picture for Facebook?”
“Sure. Heffalump’s a Leonberger. It’s a type of mountain rescue dog. Like a Saint Bernard that doesn’t drool.”
The woman nodded enthusiastically. “Can I get one of you both? You’re so cute together.”
Megan nodded and crouched down by Heffalump, who turned to lick her face.
The woman took their picture. And then two more. “Thanks! That’s great. I’m Heather, by the way.”
“Hi, Heather. I’m Megan. You make great coffee here.”
They exchanged pleasantries about the beauty of the weather and how crazy-busy the café would get on the weekends, and then Megan excused herself to go to her doctor’s appointment.
As Megan loaded Heffalump into the Outback, Heather posted the best of her pictures on the café’s Facebook page. She captioned the picture: “Megan and her awesome dog, Heffalump. They’re both super nice and #R-positive!”
It was Heather’s most liked and shared post ever.
Cedardell Family Medicine occupied the ground floor of an older professional building, which the practice shared with an ophthalmologist and a naturopathic clinic. Tall cedars ringed the lot. Megan had no trouble finding a shady place to park. She filled a water bowl for Heffalump and lowered the rear windows for cross-ventilation.
Dr. Clarke came out to meet her in the lobby and invited her back to his office. He looked more and more like Santa Claus with each passing year. His office was a study in organized clutter. Neat stacks of patient files and medical journals competed for space on his desk with loose notes, drug company knickknacks, a clunky office phone, and a seriously old PC.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice, Dr. Clarke,” said Megan.
“I was beginning to worry about you,” he replied. “How are you feeling today?”
“I’m fine. No, I’m confused. I’m scared. This FedEx truck just rolled up to my parents’ cabin and dropped off these…letters.”
Megan pulled the mailers from her pack and handed them to the doctor. He picked up the first letter and studied it. He nodded and set it down.
“So, this is the first you’ve heard of the ‘news of the century’?”
Megan nodded. “No internet. No phone. No TV. I’ve been off the grid for a while now.”
“How long have you been hiding up there?”
“I’m not hiding,” Megan said, turning away. “I’m working on my thesis.”
“Are you still seeing your therapist?”
“Dr. Ross? She was nice. It wasn’t working out. I’m doing yoga now.”
Dr. Clarke sighed. “After what happened, I thought we agreed that it was okay for you to get help.”
“I’m okay! It’s just this bucket of crazy got dumped over my head—”
“Please, Megan,” said the doctor, raising his hand and then gently lowering it to his desk. “How much do you know so far? I’ll try to answer any questions you might have.”
Megan resisted the urge to read from her phone and summarized what she had read earlier about CIF-117. This calmed her down. She told Dr. Clarke what she had learned about the hacking, which wound her up again. Dr. Clarke nodded and studied her for a moment.
He said, “As the Times pointed out, CIF-117 may not technically be an enzyme. It may be a new category of macromolecule. What it is and how it works, exactly, aren’t really understood yet. You can be sure there are more Nobel Prizes out there for whoever figures it out. What we do know is that it’s quite miraculous. And it’s turning the pharmaceutical industry upside down.”
“Why me? I mean, I know how hacking works, but I didn’t think anybody had access to my medical records.”
Dr. Clarke shrugged. “There are federal regulations and insurance company policies requiring more information to be online. A cost-saving thing. Given the antique computers and paper charts we use in this office, I’d say—”
“The university hospital,” said Megan. “They ran all sorts of tests.”
Dr. Clarke nodded. “I’m sure they did a thorough set of blood work as well as a toxicology screen. And they pride themselves on having the latest record-keeping systems.”
It was Megan’s turn to nod. She knew someone who worked at the U’s hospital.
“I don’t know what to do, Dr. Clarke.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I guess I want to find out if this is really real. Am I…R-positive? Can you run a test?”
“Not in this office,” said Dr. Clarke. “It requires a liver biopsy. That’s the only way to get a sufficient quantity of CIF-117 for the current test to work.”
Megan nodded again.
Dr. Clarke continued. “So you know that you’ll need to go into the hospital. They’ll extract a tissue sample. There’s a recovery period where they’ll monitor you. If everything goes well, you’ll be free to go home afterward. I know a specialist at Everett General. She might be able to work you in sometime tomorrow. If she can schedule it, you’ll need to fast, starting tonight.”
“Sounds good, Dr. Clarke.”
“Here’s the number for Dr. Sharonova’s office. As with any procedure, there are certain risks. Dr. Sharonova will discuss them with you beforehand. You don’t have to do this if you aren’t comfortable with it.” He scribbled on a notepad that advertised a statin drug in its margins.
“Ummm. My phone isn’t exactly working right now. Could I use one of yours?”
“Certainly. Would you like me to dial it for you?”
Dr. Sharonova’s scheduling assistant offered a noon appointment the next day with a ten thirty check-in time. With a flurry of thumb typing, Megan entered the pre-op instructions into her phone. She didn’t know whether to be worried or relieved that it had all been arranged so quickly. She rose to leave.
Dr. Clarke said, “If you’re R-positive, I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Sure, Dr. Clarke. What?”
“I don’t want you to take up smoking. Understood?”
Megan smiled. “Okay. Scout’s honor.”
The highways were already clogged with rush-hour traffic. She saw no point in trying to get out of town before six, so she decided to tackle getting her phone back online and, maybe, talking with FedEx. UPS would have to wait. As she walked toward the car, she realized that she couldn’t just ask her phone to lead her to her carrier’s nearest storefront. She had no mobile data service. So she sat on the bench outside Dr. Clarke’s office and used their courtesy Wi-Fi to download the map of the local area and pinpoint the nearest storefronts.
Heffalump woofed in greeting. He didn’t seem to need urgent walkies, so Megan set off.
The clerk at the phone store was named Jared. He seemed eager to help.
“Oh, there are a bunch of red flags on your account,” he said. “Your autopay was declined. And there’s some stuff here I haven’t seen before. A fraud alert, or something. If I can see some ID, I might be able to clear those.”
“Sure.” She handed him her license.
“Great, thanks.” Jared poked at the screen and typed for a minute. Then he bit his lower lip and shook his head.
He ignored her and called to one of his coworkers, “Hey, Prakash. This needs manager approval.”
A tall, heavyset man sauntered over. He stared at her for a few seconds, then caught himself and shook his head. Displacing Jared at the computer, he picked up Megan’s license and compared its picture to her.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
Prakash worked the computer and muttered under his breath. Then, to her, he said, “The system flagged your account as ‘at risk.’ Unusually high call and message volume. Too many password resets. So your account has been locked. Did you change your password recently?”
“No, no, no. It wasn’t me. I’ve been doxed.”
“Doxed? I see,” said Prakash. “We can reset your password again.”
“This shouldn’t happen. I set up two-factor authentication.”
“Yes. I see it here. But you called customer support from another number and provided your sosh to authorize the reset. You also changed your e-mail address.”
“I did not!”
“Please calm down, Ms. Bishop,” said Prakash. “We are doing our best to help you here.”
“Okay. Listen, can we just delete this account and start over?”
“Oh, no, we cannot delete an account from the system. That is impossible.”
“Not delete,” said Megan, “but how about close? And then make a new account with a new phone number. One everyone on the internet doesn’t know?”
“Are you sure you want to close your account?”
“Yes! I mean, not really, but do I have any choice?”
“So you do not want to close your account?”
“Yes, yes, yes, I do. I want to close the account. And open a new account. With a new number. Can we do that? Please?”
Prakash and Jared both nodded. Prakash moved Jared into the driver’s seat and walked him through the process.
Prakash asked, “What should we say is the reason for closing the account?”
“Hackers totally fucked it up?”
“Oh, we cannot use that word,” said Prakash. “The system would reject it. Can we say ‘customer moving out of service area’?”
“Okay. Fine. Whatever.”
Prakash continued to guide Jared. A minute later, he pivoted the screen around for Megan to sign.
“Jared will help you set up your new account. I must be serving another customer. Thank you so much for your business.”
Prakash moved down the counter to where an older woman was waving her phone for attention.
Jared focused on the screen and commenced typing. He smiled and said, “We just need to swipe your card.”
Megan offered him her debit card. He slid it through the reader on the edge of the sales tablet.
“Credit or debit?”
Jared tapped the screen. His brow furrowed.
“I’m sorry, it says it’s declined.”
“Could you try again?”
Jared nodded and swiped the card again.
“No, sorry. It says it’s declined. Do you have another card?”
“No,” Megan said. Frustration gave way to a sense of the world receding.
“Maybe you could call your bank?”
Megan glared at him, at her device, which might still be smart, but was no longer a phone, and back to him.
He blushed. “We have prepaid plans. They include data.”
Megan nodded. Prepaid plans were for drug dealers and terrorists. Would this get her onto some sort of watchlist? Megan chose the plan with the most data. When she saw the total cost, with the setup fees included, she weighed going without a plan and using an internet phone service with whatever free Wi-Fi was handy. She might need to buy minutes to make that work. Which would require a working credit card. Which was the whole problem. A peek inside her wallet confirmed the worst.
“Just a minute,” said Megan. “I’ll be right back.”
She ran out to the car and pulled the mailers out of her pack. Heffalump whimpered from the back. Megan reassured him that he was the best dog ever. He would need to poop soon. She sympathized—she regretted not using the bathroom at Dr. Clarke’s office. She removed a crisp hundred-dollar bill from the MUCH MORE envelope and held it up to the windshield. It looked real enough. At least she wasn’t knowingly passing counterfeit bills.
“I guess I’m a drug dealer,” she said aloud. Heffalump sighed.
Back in the store, Jared held the bill up to the light. He nodded and made her change. Megan left the store with a printed invoice and a new, working, phone number. She settled into the driver’s seat and smiled. Her device was whole again. Heffalump groaned.
“Oh, right! Sorry, Heff!”
She drove to a park they had passed on the way to the phone store. Heffalump bounded out of the car. Megan hooked up his leash and let him lead her into the park in search of the perfect spot to do his business. As Heffalump evaluated and rejected his options, Megan listened to on-hold music from her bank’s customer service line. In the middle of a sunny patch of lawn, in full view of children, sunbathers, and a buzzing drone overhead, Heffalump squatted and dropped his massive, smelly turd. Megan sighed and pulled a poop bag from the dispenser on the leash. The way the day had been going, it was inevitable that customer service would pick that moment to come on the line.
Megan provided her identifying information. A friendly bank representative named Peter consulted her account records. He confirmed that the card had been blocked due to suspicious activity.
“Can you unblock it for me?”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that,” said Peter. “We can send a new card to the address we have on file. It should get there in about five business days.”
“What address do you have for me?”
“I’m sorry, we can’t give out that information over the phone. It’s to protect your privacy.”
Megan remembered she hadn’t updated her address since she’d vacated her tiny apartment in the University District.
“Listen,” she said. “That address isn’t right anymore. I moved.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Bishop. There’s nothing we can do over the phone. If you go into a branch office and bring two forms of government ID, a representative there will be able to help you.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Peter thanked her for her business and asked if he could transfer her to an automated customer-satisfaction survey. He assured her it was completely anonymous and would take only a few minutes.
“No. Thanks,” she said. She stabbed the end-call button on her screen. Where was her passport? It was in a box in the storage unit with the other stuff from her apartment and the things from her parents’ house that she couldn’t bear to sell or throw away. On the way back to the car, via a trash can, she strategized how she might get to the bank before the biopsy appointment.
After eight, but still before the summer sunset, Megan returned to Hemlock Lake. Someone had duct-taped a cardboard sign to the gate.
PRIVATE PROPERTY! KEEP OUT!
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT!
Below, in smaller, more refined handwriting, it read “Please respect our privacy. Thank you, The Hemlock Lake Residents Assoc.”
The HLRA was a joke shared by Megan’s parents and the Eckloffs. In Megan’s head, the loud warning was in Walt Eckloff’s voice. The polite portion would be Joanne Eckloff’s temperance.
Megan opened the gate and pulled her car through. As she swung the gate closed, she heard another vehicle coming up the road. Her fingers mutinied. She fumbled with the lock. A black SUV rolled into view. Megan snapped her lock closed and ran to her car. She accelerated as hard as she dared and left the gate in a cloud of dust.
She brought the Outback to a skidding halt on the parking pad next to the Eckloffs’ house. Megan waited for the dust to move past her. Before the cloud had moved on, the Eckloffs’ two black Labs, Freya and Sif, were circling the car, barking in friendly greeting. Heffalump replied. Dust or no, Megan needed to get out of the confined space of the car, which was echoing with the big dog’s voice.
Walter and Joanne Eckloff stepped out of their back door. Both were weathered and fit. They were old enough to be her grandparents but had always been more surrogate uncle and aunt since Megan’s father had inherited the Bishop cabin. Megan had lost touch with them while she was away at college and hadn’t known they had retired to the lake until they talked at her mother’s memorial service.
Walter held a lever-action rifle. He carried the gun close to his chest with the muzzle pointing high as he trotted toward Megan with his eyes scanning the road. Joanne stood near the door, a slender shotgun cradled in one arm. Her other hand held what, to Megan’s eyes, was an improbably large walkie-talkie.
Megan said, “Somebody’s following me.”
“Figured that was why you took the turn by the point so fast,” said Walter. He continued to scan the road and the surrounding woods. “Didn’t see anyone come after.”
Joanne said, “Come inside, dear. The bugs are awful this time of night.”
Years ago, when the Bishops and Eckloffs were first getting to know each other, Megan’s father had enjoyed shooting Walter’s guns. Out of politeness, Megan’s mother had allowed Joanne to coach her through shooting a few clay pigeons. Her dad had eventually floated the idea of getting a rifle for trips to the cabin. The ensuing negotiations had taken place out of Megan’s hearing and were civil enough not to roil the Bishop household. In the end there had been no rifle. The shooting parties with the Eckloffs had dwindled and stopped. Years had passed since she had seen her neighbors with guns in their hands.
“C’mon, Megan,” said Walter. “Let’s unload your Heffalump. We’ve got some supper left if you’re hungry.”
Megan looked down. “I’m sorry, Walt. I didn’t mean to…I should really go.”
“No shots fired, so no harm done. Come on in and have a bite to eat.”
“No, no, no. I mean, thanks, but I’m supposed to be fasting.”
“Please, Megan. Joanne’s called a residents’ association meeting. We need to talk.”
Megan looked up. Above the rifle, she found a gentle smile and tired eyes. She nodded.
Walter said, “Don’t worry. The dogs’ll let us know if anyone’s comin’.”
They released Heffalump, who commenced playing with the Labs. As they made their way to the back door, Joanne disappeared into the house. The dogs tried to follow them in, but Walter ordered them to stay in the ample mudroom as he locked the back door. Joanne waited in the kitchen with her arms open. Megan stepped in, and they hugged. Walter slipped by and went into the front of the house.
“Are you sure I can’t get you something to eat?” said Joanne.
“No, thanks,” said Megan. “I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. I’m supposed to be fasting. Heffalump! Sit!”
“Oh, we know how that goes. When’s your appointment? They usually let you eat up to twelve hours before.”
“It’s at noon. I’m not hungry right now. I mean, thank you.”
“A glass of water, then?”
“Yes, please. That would be great.”
“We have unsweetened tea,” said Joanne, taking stock of the refrigerator’s contents.
“Water’s fine, really.”
Joanne poured three glasses from a pitcher, placed them on a tray, and led Megan into the front of the house. Megan spotted their guns standing in an open metal cabinet in the corner of the great room, whose broad windows overlooked the lake. The sliding glass door stood open, and a gentle breeze came in through the screen. Scandinavian bric-a-brac competed with over fifty years of a Field & Stream lifestyle for precious shelf space along the walls. A large woodstove hibernated in the corner. They offered her Walter’s overstuffed chair and sat down beside each other on the comfortably worn leather couch.
“We have a quorum,” said Walter. “Let’s call this meeting to order.”
“Walt, Joanne, I’m sorry—” said Megan.
“Don’t worry about it, dear,” said Joanne.
“It’s a good thing you were in town today,” said Walter. “By the time the TV news people came up, there was quite a party going on at your place.”
Joanne said, “I called the sheriff on the radio. Walt drove over to your place with his shotgun to make sure those people weren’t damaging your property.”
Megan’s eyes grew big.
Walter waved his hand dismissively. “I didn’t even have to get it out of the truck. Most of ’em listened when I told ’em they were trespassin’ and you weren’t home. The TV people started givin’ me some horseshit about the First Amendment. I asked ’em if they’d ever read the Second. That got ’em movin’.”
Megan said, “Listen, I’m really sorry about all the trouble. Thanks for looking out for the place.”
“Don’t worry about it, dear,” said Joanne. “So, this doctor’s appointment, is it about your Raether condition? Not that it’s any of our business if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“They’re going to run some tests to see if I even have it. Does everybody but me know about this R-positive thing?”
Joanne said, “Today is the first we’ve heard you have this Raether thing.”
“My doctor says I have some of the characteristics of an R-positive. I have the right blood type. They have to do a liver biopsy to be sure.”
“Oh! A liver biopsy,” said Joanne. “Walter had one of those. It wasn’t so bad, was it, Walt?”
Walter shrugged. “If you don’t mind havin’ a core sample gouged out of your gizzard with a humongous needle, it isn’t.”
“Walter, don’t frighten her,” said Joanne.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Walter told Megan. “They dope you up, and it doesn’t take long at all.”
Joanne massaged her husband’s neck. “They can do it outpatient, but you’ll need someone to bring you home. Why don’t you let me drive you in tomorrow? Walt can stay here and play guard dog.”
“Roooowf!” Walter barked. “Roooowwwwf!”
He grinned and nuzzled his wife. She scratched him behind his ear. Walter rolled his eyes in delight.
“Thank you,” said Megan. “Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, that would be super great. I owe you both a huge favor.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Walter. “Where’s the fun in bein’ a crotchety old mountain man if you can’t run off the city folk once in a while?”
Megan’s small bedroom served as a museum of her childhood. She had preserved a collection of stuffed animals and dolls at the cabin, even through the austere goth period of her high school years. She still slept atop the high sleeper she had begged her parents for during their second round of remodeling. The lower bunk, which extended perpendicular to the wall, had seen some use by Megan’s friend Jesa in grade school. Heffalump had since claimed it as his own. She had not gone up the spiral staircase to her parents’ bedroom in the time since she had moved out to the lake.
She was comfortable with the sound of her dog’s breathing and forgave him the occasional snore or dreaming grunt. She wished he wouldn’t fart, but there were limits to house training. Weeks into their stay at the cabin, Heffalump had finally trained himself not to leap up in barking excitement whenever an animal moved in the woods outside the window. When his booming voice startled her out of sleep, Megan knew that someone, or something, was right outside the cabin. Or inside.
Heffalump jumped off his bed and dashed, baying, out the bedroom door. Megan vaulted to the floor. A woman screamed from the direction of the kitchen. Megan raced to catch up with the dog. A door slammed.
“Heff!” she shouted.
She found him in the mudroom, woofing excitedly at the back door. Megan peered through the window. She saw a woman running down the road in the moonlight. The woman disappeared into the gully. Megan knelt down and wrapped her arms around Heffalump. She shivered, which was insane. It was a warm summer night.
“Hush, Heff,” she murmured. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
When the dog stopped barking and her breathing returned to normal, Megan got up. She needed some tea. She needed it badly. She turned on the kitchen light. A pale-lavender sheet of paper lay in middle of the floor. It was another letter, written in beautiful calligraphy. It wasn’t a letter. It was a poem that spoke of dreams dying, of farewells rehearsed and delivered. Her eyes filled with tears. Heffalump licked them away. She hugged her dog again and sobbed.