Tuesday, November 12, 10:00 A.M.
In my mind’s eye, it’s always autumn in Athens. Those sweltering days of summer are immediately forgotten when the first red leaf twists off its branch. On North Campus, a gold winged elm and scarlet oak stand like sacred guardians, ancient harbingers of wisdom and secrets. Just before the unadorned face of New College, a sugar maple shudders in the wind. But despite the breeze stirring the leaves on the pavement, the day is heating up. There’s a trickle of sweat between my shoulder blades. And there’s something else, something I can’t quite define, a tingling under my skin, a shadow at the corner of my eye. A feeling that the world’s askew and waiting to right itself.
I climb the concrete steps to the iron light poles of the university’s arches and stride through despite the local lore that says I have no right to do so. The buildings strangling the long stretch of browning grass are what’s left of the original campus. If you take a tour, overeager sophomores will tell you about Greek Revival architecture and the Old Chapel, with its famous painting of St. Peter’s Cathedral, once upon a time the largest framed oil painting in the world. They’ll tell you the meaning of the words inscribed in Latin above the massive columns of the library entrance: to teach and to inquire into the nature of things. They’ll tell you that there are other libraries on campus and between them all, there are more than 4.5 million books, 6.5 million microforms, and thousands of newspapers, photographs, and other documents. They might tell you about the double-barreled cannon three blocks away in front of city hall and the tree that owns itself at the corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets. What they won’t tell you are the less quaint, more shameful symbols of the university’s long history—the ghosts of the hushed-up murder-suicide in Waddel, the skull under Baldwin Hall, the sorority girls in blackface in an old yearbook—all the barely concealed secrets that rear their heads at the wrong moments, like some Barnesian grotesque animal, reminding you that cruelty’s predictable.
The building that houses my mother’s office is no exception. Named after a Georgia governor who was a firm believer in public education for free whites and slavery for all Blacks, he advocated secession during the Civil War, then resisted the Confederate draft, was briefly imprisoned, and got a shout-out in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. After the war he found a new, state-sanctioned way to keep slavery alive and leased Black convicts from the Georgia government for his coal mining operations. Now there’s a statue of him and his wife at the state capitol and a U-shaped building named in his honor on the university’s campus.
Joe Brown Hall was built in 1932 to serve as a boys’ dormitory. One Thanksgiving holiday in the ’70s, all the young men left except one. No one found him until after the break, and well—you can imagine. The smell was awful; the other boys complained. There were rumors the janitors couldn’t clean the blood off the floor—never mind that the boy hung himself. So they sealed it up, including the stairwell that led to the boy’s room. A dozen or so steps are now called “The Staircase to Nowhere” with a charming door-sized painting that makes it look like the stairs keep going. As a girl, I’d run up the steps to knock and then run away and hide on the opposite end, waiting for this invisible boy, this long-forgotten brother, to appear. No one ever came looking for me, but it didn’t escape my attention that for all my banging, the sounds reverberating behind the wall were hollow.
My mother’s office is lined with books, interspersed with student projects, framed snapshots of Germany, and quotes by Goethe—she’s been a professor at the university for thirty years, and one look at her walls lets you know what she teaches.
You might think that with all the photos of Bavarian hillsides and German newspapers strewn about, she misses her homeland. But as far as I know, she’s never been back—not after she graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley, not during the summers for research, not even to bury her parents. Outside the classroom, she refuses to speak German. Maybe she feels guilty for not visiting her parents before they died. Maybe speaking in German would blur the lines she tries so hard to define between work and home, or maybe after hours and hours of teaching eighteen-year-olds, she didn’t have the energy or patience to teach me. Whatever it was, despite all the years I spent in her office, I never learned to speak German.
Now she’s behind her desk, a book in one hand, pen and paper in the other. Her whole person is neat and tidy, every inch buttoned, straightened, and tucked into place, but she looks deflated. In the summer, she’ll regain some of her buoyancy, the years will drop from her shoulders, and whatever internal demon it is that drives her will soften its grip. But in the middle of fall semester, everything about her seems squeezed tight.
She doesn’t look surprised to see me. The late-morning sun casts a hazy glow through her office window. It’s peaceful in the way it always is between classes, full of the easy chatter of other professors in the hall, students sitting cross-legged in front of classrooms, heads bent over books. It’s easy—when you’re in the middle of it—to forget all the stuff going on under the surface: the vicious departmental meetings, infighting and backstabbing, petty gossip. Not to mention the adjuncts living in poverty, the underage drinking, sexual assault, hazing, cheating, and lying of the students. As one of my mother’s English colleagues is fond of saying: Hell is empty, all the devils are here.
I sit on the edge of one of the maroon chairs meant for students, and my mother leans over to flip the switch on her electric kettle. The smell of coffee, books, and old carpet is familiar. As a child I used to sit here while my mother worked, my feet hanging above the ground kicking an uneven rhythm against her desk until she looked up and told me to stop. Sometimes, I would kick for hours. It was a kind of game I played to see how long it took her to notice. And often, she wouldn’t. When students knocked timidly on her door, I would dive under her desk to hide, and she would pretend I wasn’t there. I always thought I had the students fooled, until inevitably they would stand, thank my mother, and yell “Bye, Marlitt” on their way out.
“Truman passed you over again,” my mother says, her critical gray eyes flicking between me and her computer screen.
“And now you don’t know what to do with yourself.” Her look is sympathetic, and I’m so grateful she doesn’t trivialize my disappointment that my breath catches in my chest.
I sigh. This—the desire to work—at least, she can understand.
My mother’s waiting for me to say something, peering at me through her black-framed glasses. She does the same thing to her students. I guess she thinks that if she’s patient enough, one of them will come up with something brilliant. We stare at each other—me with the resolute stubbornness of an only child; her with the professorial certainty that I’ll talk eventually, and whatever I say later will be better than if she pushes me now.
But then, somewhere, beyond the warm, paned glass and her potted plants, there it is. The aberration in the otherwise normal day.
It’s the screams that get me running. Primal and full of terror, these aren’t the kind of shrieks that dissolve into giddy laughter, but the kind that set your teeth on edge, the kind you might hear in the woods or down a dark alley, the kind that send adrenaline coursing through your limbs in an instinctive motion of fight or flight.
Before my mother can flinch, I am out of the chair and in the carpeted hallway, through the side door, and throwing myself down the concrete steps. I think she calls after me, but her voice is miles away. And as I dodge students with their backpacks, heads down, lost in their phones, I remember I’ve always been good at this. And that whatever Truman says, this, the instinct that drives me toward the center of the action, not away from it, is what makes me good at my job.
Students are congregating at the Lumpkin Street crosswalk. They’re rigid, suspended in motion. Hands raised to mouths, feet still outstretched, forward momentum thwarted like they’ve hit an invisible wall. I skid to a stop, and there’s a swell silent and still, all sounds of traffic, the gasps and murmurs of the crowd obliterated for one long moment, cresting at the precipice, before the wave crashes down. And everything else rushes in, the endless scream, students clutching each other, voices—Call 911, is he breathing? What happened? The other guy—he just drove off. Didn’t stop. And then my own voice, yelling for them to get out of the way, holding my badge in the air. They scatter the way young people always do when they hear “police.” And there’s a clear path from me to the street.
He’s on his side, a bloody arm stretched out above his head, one leg bent under the other, and his hip twisting at an impossible angle. Medium height, dressed in khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt, a pair of Ray-Bans askew on his face, so I can see one eye open, unblinking at the asphalt. With his mouth agape and brown curls falling over his flushed cheek, he looks young; but based on the tuft of hair curling out from the top button of his shirt, the way the fabric stretches across his shoulders, the bruise-colored shadows under his eyes, and slight pouch of a beer belly, I guess he’s around twenty, likes to party, and should be sitting in the back of a lecture hall instead of lying dead on the street.
I squat in front of him, phone at my ear.
I read once that death isn’t instant. Our brains are still ticking for ten minutes or so, even after our hearts stop, meaning that in some way, we may be conscious of our own death. As I wait to be put through, I rock back on my heels, still close enough to see the chipped tooth and blood dripping from his lips. I’m wondering whether he bit his tongue, whether some part of him knows this, knows that he’s dead, that I’m here, and he’s not alone, when the operator says, “What’s your emergency?”
“I’m at the Lumpkin and Baxter Street intersection, there’s been a—”
“Pedestrian accident, yes.” A few clicks of a keyboard. “There’s an ambulance en route now. The police are on their way.”
I hang up and dial Teddy.
He answers on the first ring.
“Hey,” he says, “sorry about Truman. I told him you could handle it, but he thought Oliver—”
“There’s been a hit-and-run on campus.”
“Yeah—we heard, but—”
“You should meet me here.”
“Hit-and-run’s not our—”
“Trust me, Teddy. Get here as fast as you can. Take the car, not your bike.”
I’m ashamed to say, but as soon as I realized the polo-and-khaki-clad boy in the street was dead and the driver had left him to bleed out on the asphalt, I knew I wanted this case.
Behind me I can feel the students on their cell phones, swarming, taking video footage and remonstrating. The light changes from red to green. Cars back up on Lumpkin and Baxter, honking and doing U-turns in the street.
“He’s not breathing!” a student screams.
No shit, I think. He also has no pulse, no pupillary constriction when I shine my phone flashlight in his eye. And he’s released his bowels.
“Is he dead?”
Wails from all sides.
And then the howling ambulance and police sirens. A woman in blue circles me with yellow tape, and Teddy’s voice purrs, low and calm at my elbow.
“I called the techs, but they were already on their way.” I look up at him to find he’s gazing over my shoulder, his mouth a hard line. “Aisha will want to take a closer look at the body.” Another beat. “What happened?”
I tell him about the screams, my dash down Lumpkin, the students, and the condition of the body when I arrived.
“I got here two minutes, three max, after he was hit.”
“And he was—” Teddy’s crouched low. He’s wearing bright orange sneakers and one side of his dress pants is rolled up.
I lower my voice. “Dead, yeah. On impact’s my guess, but we’ll see what Aisha says.”
We look back at the boy. His skin’s already beginning to lose its pink flush, a result of the blood draining away from his veins. His muscles have relaxed, and even the tension is gone from his eyelids. This is why some people think the dead look like they’re sleeping; but up close, it’s what’s not there that gives it away: the absence of breath, reflex, all the tiny movements that disappear when our hearts stop beating.
“Get back,” the female officer barks at a boy leaning over the crime tape with his phone.
“We should do something about these students,” Teddy says. We’ve angled our shoulders to block the body from view. Behind us, the crowd sways and heaves. Someone is swearing.
I sigh. “Let’s separate the gawkers from the witnesses. When I arrived, there were ten or so at the crosswalk.” We both glance over our shoulders. The crowd has swollen to fifty. Cars are no longer turning around, but people have parked, left doors open, and run down the hills on either side to see what happened.
“I was first on the scene,” I hiss as I stand and brush off my jeans. There’s a smear of blood on the cuff of my blouse.
He smiles, but his brown eyes are wary. “I told Oliver I was meeting you for coffee and a snack, which—”
I dig through my bag and hand him a granola bar.
“Right.” He takes a bite. “We’ll figure something out.”
I roll my eyes. Teddy is a wonderful, annoyingly kind and patient person, who people always are surprised to learn is a homicide detective. And Teddy hates lying, so whenever he does, he has to caveat it with some kernel of truth. But he’s also insatiable. If his stomach grumbles, if he looks over with a pained grin and says he’s hungry, you better feed that man before his jawline tightens and his eyes turn red. I’m serious, “hangry” is an understatement—it’s more like hang-furious, hang up the phone and buy that man a bag of pretzels. I’ve learned to pack snacks—in the car, in my bag. I’ve even found smushed Snickers bars at the bottom of the washing machine because I’ve stuck them in my pockets and forgotten about them. Once you feed him, all is right in the world and he goes back to normal like a reverse gremlin.
Appetite and moral conscience appeased, Teddy surveys the throng of people. I do, too. Looking for anyone too eager and out of place or too nonchalant, hanging back but watching us under hooded eyes. My mother stands at the edge of the crowd. She nods, her shoulders straight, head erect, and then, with a look that suggests she thinks I’ve found what I was looking for, turns back toward Joe Brown Hall. A gray-haired man in a brown suit and overlarge tote bag pushes his way through the students.
“Get to class,” he shouts without any acknowledgment of the body in the street.
A handful scatter but only one or two start to walk away.
Teddy detaches himself from me.
“Before any of you leave,” he shouts, and holds his badge in the air—a few students duck. “We want to speak with those of you who witnessed the accident.” He doesn’t say “hit-and-run” or identify us as homicide detectives, and the students hover, unsure.
“The rest of you can go”—and when they don’t move—“this won’t count as an excused absence.”
That sends a few scrambling. One, a white girl with her head down and notebook clutched to her chest, makes a beeline for the student learning center.
“You,” I yell, and half a dozen students look up, startled. They stare as I march toward the sidewalk. I’m five nine, dark haired and green eyed, with a round face and angular body—not ridiculously tall or pretty, but tall enough and pretty enough to draw attention. The height plus the badge stops a few students in their tracks. “You were a witness. You need to stay.”
“But I—” The girl blinks helplessly.
“If you witnessed anything, I’d like you to wait—” I repeat, looking past her and all the others for a space out of the way but close enough that we can keep an eye on them “—on the learning center steps.” I gesture to the long concrete stairs behind her. “The rest of you can go.”
The techs are here in full force now. Police usher people back to their cars, set up roadblocks, and direct everyone away from the scene.
I see Aisha’s head above the crowd with a flood of relief. She’s the best forensic examiner we’ve got, the kind that handles everything from single vehicle crashes to multiple homicides with a determination and grace that makes the rest of us look somewhat philistine.
“What can you tell me?”
“Student. White male. Late teens, early twenties. Hit-and-run. Died on impact or very shortly thereafter.”
She nods and sweeps her long black hair into a tight bun. At first, she walks the perimeter, scanning the roads in both directions. Then she paces the length of the crosswalk, times the change of the light from green to yellow, yellow to red. Notes the split second between the red light and white walking man.
Copyright © 2022 by Lauren Nossett