Now that it’s out, I feel agitated, restless. My thoughts are a jumble. “Do you want a drink or something?” I ask. “I think I need bourbon.”
“Sure,” she says. “I always drank when you paid.”
I go back out to the kitchen, Grendel at my heels. It’s cold out, and I’d turned the heat down when I left the house. But I feel flushed, sweaty. Almost like I have a fever. I open the corner cabinet and take down a bottle of Rowan’s Creek and two glasses. When Jake was born, twenty years ago, Emily’s brother gave me a bottle of Rowan’s Creek, so whenever I drink it, I think of my son. My hand shakes as I pour.
Grendel starts eating. I hear his chomping in the corner.
“You were drinking a lot when I last saw you.”
I turn toward Madeline. She’s standing in the doorway from the living room, leaning against the jamb.
“I was,” I say. “I’ve cut back. A lot. I had to.” I hand her the glass, trying to control the trembling. “But I think I could use one or maybe two tonight.”
“I guess it isn’t every day that a ghost shows up in your house.”
I swallow and lean back against the counter. “They looked for you, Madeline. Searches all over campus and town. It was on the news. Some people thought you just up and ran off on a whim. Some students do that. Impulse trips.”
“Some kids can afford to do that.”
“Right. But they looked in your apartment. You left all your books and clothes behind. You were an excellent student, an honors student, a few months away from getting a degree. And you stopped coming to class. The police questioned everybody who’d had any contact with you, including me. Especially me because we were all at the bar that night.”
“And I left Dubliners right after you did.”
“Right. Some of this is fuzzy. How I got home . . . how I even man- aged to get my key in the lock and get inside . . . I kind of think you came with me . . . but I don’t know how far . . .”
“Out in the living room you were talking about the book,” she says, arms crossed, glass in front of her. “After you read it and wanted to talk to me and I was gone.”
I finish my first glass and pour another. This is it, I tell myself. Just two drinks.
“You know I have to publish to get tenure,” I say. “That’s the way to survive in academia.”
“I’ve heard about that.” “Publish or perish, they call it.” “It sounds awfully bleak.”
“It can be,” I say. “And I hadn’t published anything in the seven years I’d been here. That book of stories AutumnSunsetcame out when I was still in graduate school, so it didn’t count. If you don’t get tenure, you get fired. And if I didn’t get tenure here, I probably wouldn’t get hired anywhere else. They’d see I failed to produce, and no one would touch me. Why would they want a middle-aged guy with a huge blank spot in his publication record?”
“You could tell them about your family,” Madeline says.
“Sure. And the university here gave me an extra year for bereavement. I still couldn’t produce a book or even a few stories.” Grendel appears to be finished eating. He slurps some water, shakes his head, and goes back out to his perch on the couch. “Dr. White, the department chair, is a pretty good friend. And he really looked out for me. But he could only do so much. And he was really on me, reminding me what was at stake. He kept telling me, ‘Just produce something, Connor.’”
“No pressure, right? Hurry up and write an entire book while you’re grieving.”
“Life goes on at some point.” I drink some more. “The world doesn’t stop forever. Six months had passed after you disappeared. Six months. No one really said it out loud, but everybody was thinking the same thing. After a few days—a week, really—people were thinking the worst had happened. That you weren’t coming back. That you were dead. Murdered. Even your mom said it in an interview she did with the local paper. Does she know you’re—”
“I’ll call her soon,” Madeline says, her voice sharp. “You just finish telling me about the book and how all of this happened.”
We’ve reversed roles. She’s asking the questions. She’s playing the part of authority figure. And I feel compelled to answer her and give a full accounting of myself.
“I had your book,” I say. “Almost all handwritten. And you were gone. And I had an agent interested in my writing from years ago, although I wasn’t even sure she still knew I existed. I took your handwrit- ten book and retyped it on my computer.”
“You gave me a hard time about turning in a handwritten draft. I told you my computer died.”
“It turned out to be to my advantage. I made some of the revisions as I went along. I kept telling myself I wasn’t going to send it anywhere, that I was just going to type the book out as an exercise, a way to get my own creative juices flowing again. But the deadline was coming up for my tenure review. And I really wasn’t sure how I would handle it if I lost this job. On top of everything else, to be unemployed with nowhere to go.”
Madeline shows concern as she listens. She’s nodding, encouraging me to keep talking. And it feels good, really good, to finally unburden myself of the secret I’ve been carrying around for the past eighteen months. Even if I am unburdening myself to the person most directly harmed by my actions.
“It’s so hard to get a book published,” I say. “What are the chances for anyone? It was a whim. A Hail Mary play. But my agent loved the story. And within a few weeks, an editor loved it. And bought it. I kept telling myself to speak up, to tell them it wasn’t mine. But the train just kept gathering momentum and . . . I have to be honest . . . after every- thing that had gone wrong for me, after all my struggles with writing, to hear people saying such nice things felt really, really good.”
I look at her, and she swallows some of her bourbon. The look on her face has shifted, from concern and understanding to something I can’t really read. Her eyes look flat and cold, pale marbles staring back at me.
“I’m sorry, Madeline,” I say. “I really am.”
She takes her time responding, and then says, “Don’t worry. I didn’t show up here without a plan for how you’ll make this all right.”
“Excerpted from KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS by David Bell, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by David Bell”