Dana struggles to fit in with neurotypical norms at the best of times, but when she is caught making mean comments about a fellow writing group member, she wonders whether she is, deep down, a good person; by Rachel Mauro.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
CODE KAREN! SHE’S ON HER WAY! Dana chuckled at Audrey’s text as it flashed onto her cell phone. A few dots followed, then a stock photo of a platinum blonde woman in sunglasses. Dana savored the private joke in this half-filled boutique cafe. Patrons perched on chairs, drinking fancy coffee, exchanging their own small talk. She was one of them.
The cell phone clock advanced another number, and Dana sucked in a breath of anxiety. “I’m a good person, I’m a good person.” Her classmate had phoned, had asked to meet. Dana was annoyed. Why couldn’t Cici just ignore Dana’s notes on the latest chapter of her insufferable vanity novel? Save her self-righteous spiel for their next class? “I’m a good person.”
“Sorry I’m late!” Cici blew into the coffee shop, swaying under a cadre of designer bags. “But the salespeople at Mac weren’t helpful at all. I just needed a minimal touchup for Carly’s recital, and they kept trying to sell me their new skin care line. Couldn’t stand all that pandering. Guess I’ll have to do my makeup at home, like I have time for that.” She toppled into the chair facing Dana’s, keeping her bags with her like a buffer.
“It’s no trouble.” Dana nodded graciously. At least she was doing a mitzvah for those poor Mac salespeople.
“Ah yes, Trevor,” Cici said, squinting at his name tag. “I would like a Cappuccino, please, with just a little bit of foam. Oh, and do you have non-dairy milk? I don’t do dairy. Heaven knows, it’s unhealthy for all of us.”
“I’ll just have a water,” Dana said, smiling apologetically.
“Counting your calories, are you?” Cici asked as Trevor left.
“We had a big barbecue for Labor Day,” Dana offered.
Cici nodded. She fiddled with her gold engagement and wedding rings.
A sudden burst of laughter from the teenagers at the table behind her, and Dana tensed. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out in five counts like the pediatrician taught her when she was first diagnosed. The noise receded into a hum. She came back to as Cici was thanking her for the notes she’d sent.
“Oh, it’s no problem.”
Cici looked up at her then. “You should also be aware that when you send someone one message in an email thread, they can read the rest as well. So, I read all the stuff that you and the girls have been saying about me.”
Dana’s hand spasmed. More laughter from the nearby table thrummed in her ears. Chairs scraped on the floor, and smart phones flashed and chirped notices. What had been in that email chain? Audrey had the habit of calling Cici a “Karen” at least once a week. Like when Cici and her husband were planning an anniversary trip to Cancun: “someone ought to warn all the panhandlers on that island: the worst Karen of your life is coming!” Cici was looking to Dana like a Karen right now: perfectly manicured eyebrow raised, a queen at her preppy court.
“I see you have no excuses on hand,” Cici continued after several seconds of silence. “There really is nothing to say. It was disgusting, reading that stuff.” She started shouldering her bags with rapid precision, pausing for one final glare. “Tell Audrey and the rest that there will be consequences. Trevor, I’ll take that drink to go.” Cici stood, sweeping past the open-mouthed waiter who had arrived with her cup.
“She was just trying to get a rise out of you,” Audrey told Dana a few hours later.
Dana was pacing her living room, phone in hand. “I don’t know. Some of that stuff…” She had only been able to take a cursory glance through the damning email thread. A few remarks that had seemed funny at the time now rang out to her as cruel. Even one of her own, where Dana had called Cici “an attention whore” for posting a fundraising link to her child’s school on an unrelated Facebook post.
“It’s a completely normal response to her theatrics!” Audrey’s voice proclaimed. “I mean honestly. Who doesn’t shit talk an annoying colleague, writing buddy, whoever, with friends? Anyone Cici complains to would have to admit we have a point. The fact that she’s threatening you over private emails proves it.”
Dana stopped pacing and closed her eyes against a sense of vertigo. “I’m really sorry I dragged you into this.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” Her friend’s voice shifted to its usual maternal glaze. Dana’s shoulders relaxed. “We all hit the wrong button, or whatever, on email. Now stop beating yourself up, girlfriend.”
Dana sat at a red light, tapping her hands on top of her steering wheel, as she tried to turn her mind off. If Audrey said things were okay, then they would be. Audrey knew something about navigating difficult situations, what with raising three boys while balancing a career in academia. Dana met her by chance when they signed up for the same writing class. Audrey was taking the class to “de-pressurize.” Whereas Dana figured she needed something in her life besides going to work and playing chauffer to her niece, Riley. Just an hour a week to find her own voice. She hadn’t thought that once she shared it, a woman like Audrey would take her under her wing.
Dana parked near the edge of the synagogue lot and trekked up to the building. Riley and her b’nai mitzvah class were convened right in front of the bimah. Rabbi Finkelstein sat on the stair, wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt and a knit kippah over her frizzy hair.
“So, the thing about Joseph is that even though he’s favored, and even though he’s destined to save the People of Israel from starvation, he’s not perfect,” the rabbi was saying. “When he tells tales about his brothers, he’s engaging in ‘lashon hara.’ Remember what that means? Anyone?”
“Evil tongue,” a couple of the kids parroted back, mumbling.
“That’s right,” Rabbi Finkelstein grinned. “So, keep that in mind whenever you want to tattle on your brothers or sisters spending too much time on the Xbox. Our tradition doesn’t think highly of it.”
“How was class?” Dana asked Riley on the drive home.
“Okay.” Riley’s voice was flat. She was typing on her cell phone, not taking her eyes away from the screen.
Dana glanced between the girl and the road. “Anything good on social media?”
“More like something HORRIBLE.” Riley groaned, her hands clenching around her phone’s plastic covering. “The Dawson Boys are splitting up. Some girl went out with both Tommy and Stephen and then posted about it.”
“They broke up because they dated the same girl? That seems a little extreme.”
“They broke up because she got them to trash talk each other and then she posted it.”
Dana’s hand slipped on the wheel. The car teetered for a half second before she righted it. She locked her eyes in front of her, on the upcoming traffic light switching from yellow to red.
The car paused, humming softly. In the passenger seat, Riley’s attention had never left her phone. Her fingers moved over the screen in a staccato performance. “That bitch is gonna regret this.”
“This is an awkward way to start,” Bianca said, “but something disturbing has been brought to my attention.”
It was Wednesday night. Writing class night. Dana and fifteen other adults were seated in a private meeting room in the local library. Laptops, printed handouts, and a glass pitcher of water with paper cups stood on the table between them. The water was there because of Cici. Bianca had explained on the first night of class that open liquids were prohibited in the library. But Cici had made the case for sufficient water intake throughout the day.
“Apparently some members of this class have been sharing negative messages about other members.” Bianca’s eyes traveled from one face to another. Dana’s hand inched towards her hair before she forced it down. “Now, we’re all adults here. If I wanted the Mean Girls writing group, I could have volunteered to oversee the teen class.” Her lips quirked upward. “Let’s just resolve to be kinder to one another, shall we?”
The murmurs buzzed in Dana’s ears; she closed her eyes, breathed in and out. Her past words stirred like indigestion in her stomach. She dared one glance at Cici’s inscrutable face.
“Well, that could have gone worse,” Audrey said. Dana, Heather and Lindsay were huddled around her car after class. “A slap on the wrist? Not even a personal one? Cici must be losing her touch.”
“Maybe she should call a Karen support group,” Heather snickered. “They could give her a list of managers to cold call and rant about their service.”
Audrey’s laugh came out as a bark, which she covered with her hand. “I’ve got to get home to my kids.” She opened her car door, and then gave each of the women a squeeze, saving Dana for last. “Cheer up, girlfriend. You’re out of the danger zone.”
The first thing Dana could see when opening the door to her apartment was a vast, empty space. Three feet between the door and her two-person table. A tiny kitchenette tucked into the corner like a folded piece of furniture. A distant meow pierced the quiet. Then, several seconds of the pitter patter of claws before Chloe darted around the corner.
“Hey, girlfriend.” Dana reached down and scratched the orange tabby behind the ears. “I’m home.”
Chloe’s purring followed her as she stepped into her living room and collapsed on the couch. She glanced at the TV, trying to remember if anything good had dropped that night on streaming. Flanking the flatscreen were pictures of Riley, her life spread across Dana’s wall in a flurry of golden hair and rosy cheeks.
Her sister’s daughter was two years old when the gynecologist gave Dana the news she was already expecting. “Polycystic ovary syndrome. It’s not uncommon.” Abandoning any pretense of bedside manner, the doctor started typing at her computer. “I’ll prescribe some birth control; should get your periods going again.”
Two days later, as Dana stepped through the swishing doors at her local drug store, she imagined causing a scene. She hoped the pharmacist might be wearing a big cross or a neon “Jesus Saves!” pin. His nose would crinkle when he picked up her prescription. Oh, look at that, another whore using contraception. Then Dana could get in his face, in all her righteous indignation. “It’s for MEDICAL purposes. Maybe you shouldn’t hold opinions on subjects you know nothing about.”
The kink in her plan, of course, was her belief that all women should have access to birth control anyway. And also that the pharmacist, a South Asian man wearing nothing more remarkable than his lab coat, didn’t pay any attention to her at all.
There was no drama, no impending doom in Dana’s life. No partner, or nest egg, or any real reason to have a baby. Just her body slamming the door shut on her, or making it more difficult for her to jimmy it open in any case, because that was the card she was dealt.
It felt like an appropriate chapter in her story, though. Before Dana made it to kindergarten, she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Any time she felt at odds with the world, she spoke of her adversary’s “neurotypical brain patterns” like a defensive mantra. It made her reality easier to bear. A chasm in the bridge to social acceptability that Dana could never find a way to cross. Up until she signed up for her library system’s adult writing class and wrote a plaintive vignette about the desire for motherhood. Then, though she remained as barren as ever, a handful of mothers entered her life.
Dana leaned over Chloe to grab her laptop from the end table. Tapping it awake, she opened Gmail, searched for Audrey’s name and scrolled down. “Your story reminded me of the desperation I felt when I was trying to get pregnant with the twins,” Audrey had written her, now months ago. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to get news like yours.”
A few exchanges later, and Audrey was inviting Dana out to Starbucks with her, Heather and Lindsay. At first, Dana was thrust back into her actual school days: a fake smile straining her face, her ears picking up radio static rather than generic small talk. Then, Audrey had mentioned Riley.
“It’s incredible how much you care for her. I can’t get my brother to give two shits about my kids.”
“She’s blushing!” Heather cackled, jabbing a finger in Dana’s direction. “You’ll have to get used to Audrey’s coarseness.”
“I tell it how it is.” Audrey rolled up the sleeves of her Little League logo-emblazoned sweatshirt. “All day at work, I have to get a bunch of man-babies in line, and then at home it’s my three little terrors, God love ’em.” She placed a hand on Dana’s arm. “Let me give you some advice. Life’s too short for meaningless niceties. The only thing they’ll give you is a headache.”
Is that when they started bad-mouthing Cici? Dana scrolled up and down her inbox. When had Cici gone from being a minor entity in their class to a headache to be squashed? Chloe’s paws kneaded into Dana’s thigh. There was some plot twist in the narrative that she couldn’t remember reading, a shift when it became natural to comment on Cici’s complaints about impertinent sales clerks or tardy members of her daughter’s school carpool, to notice them at all. Dana usually wasn’t good at picking up cues from anyone.
She pushed the laptop shut and placed it on the ottoman beside her, allowing Chloe to crawl onto her lap. “Neurotypical behaviors,” she muttered. “It’s all static out there.”
Chloe settled, and butted her head against Dana’s palm. Dana led a hand down her cat’s back, confident in this exchange.
Dana’s sister opened her front door and let out an agitated sigh. “Oh crap, I forgot to text you. I’ve had to cancel your playdate with Riley.”
“Playdate?” The word tasted strange on Dana’s tongue, as though she’d turned two decades younger. “Why?”
“She’s been grounded. This whole thing with the Dawson Boys has gotten completely out of hand. Every time I check in on her, she has some stupid tabloid article up on the computer. Her teacher had to confiscate her phone in class.” Dana’s sister ran a hand through her hair, making it stand on edge. “Were we this bad when we were her age?”
Dana didn’t hear the question. “Can I at least see her? Just to say hi?”
Her sister’s eyes raked over Dana, as if she were checking for parental red flags. “Okay, I guess. Tell her lunch is ready in half an hour.”
Riley was curled up in the corner of her bed when Dana creaked the door open. “Go away,” she groaned.
“It’s just me.” Dana took two steps inside. “I’m sorry we can’t go out today.”
“My mother is being COMPLETELY unreasonable.” Riley turned from the wall, hair akimbo over her red-tinged face. “Look at this room; it’s EMPTY.”
Dana glanced around at Riley’s bare shelves, overlooked by posters of the two boys in question, a shimmering intensity to their eyes. Dana hunched her shoulders and turned away. “I have to go downstairs to do my homework,” Riley’s litany continued. “Like we’re communists or something.”
“Still no chance the Dawson Boys will get back together?”
“Stephen moved out of their condo and everything. He’s on some ski trip with his old high school friends, and posting pictures to Instagram.” Outside, a blue jay squawked in sympathy.
Dana chewed a little on her lip. “It’s difficult when things change. It’s like you find some comfort in the world, something that makes you happy, but it doesn’t last. People make mistakes, or they move on naturally, I guess.”
“That bitch deserves to pay. SHE’S the one who ruined it!”
“Yeah, well…” Dana’s mind flashed to the boutique coffee shop, to some moment she couldn’t even remember when she carelessly hit send on an email. “What’s the point of giving her even more power? You can’t change anything, unfortunately.”
“I tried,” Riley pouted. Her shoulders dropped as if she were flinging them onto the bed.
“What do you mean?”
“I wrote a couple of tweets about it. Tried to scare her off. Something. I dunno.”
Something fluttered in Dana’s chest. “You mean like… mean tweets?”
“Mom went completely ballistic.” Riley jolted upright, hair falling from her face. “I mean, what’s the big deal? They’re just words; they can’t hurt her.”
The fluttering sensation thickened, like a closed fist. Dana took a tentative scooch closer to her niece. “Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you lose track of the things you say, or write. I did that once. I wrote these mean things about another woman without thinking. Then I looked back on them, and could hardly recognize the words. Recognize myself.” She forced Riley to hold her gaze. “I don’t want that for you.”
The light slid onto Riley’s face, illuminating a roundedness that the girl had not lost yet with age. She wished she could take out her phone, snap another picture for her wall. “Don’t worry about me, Aunt Dana,” her niece was saying. “I don’t go on Twitter anymore anyway. It’s a toxic culture.”
Pumpkin spice wafted up to greet her as Dana entered the Starbucks she shared with Audrey, Lindsay and Heather. She breathed in the ambiance, testing a smile on her face. “A new season!” she greeted her friends as she approached their table.
“Same old shit from Karen-land,” Audrey groaned. She opened her laptop as Dana took a sheath of paper from her bag. “Who wants to start on the latest chapter of her novel?”
Lindsay and Heather chortled at the scare quotes around the final word. “Honestly, does she think she can turn her father into a saint?” Audrey continued.
“The sainthood of white tears,” Heather added.
“Isn’t fiction supposed to be fiction anyway?” Lindsay asked.
“Well, it’s definitely fiction.” Audrey tapped definitively on the laptop. “It’s a bunch of horseshit.”
Dana glanced down at a paragraph she’d highlighted. In past weeks, she’d mocked Cici’s writing, a lightly fictionalized account of her father’s war service in Vietnam, as much as anyone else. She took a breath. “I dunno, guys. I think there’s something… moving in this scene with her dad and the mama-san in the mess hall.”
“Moving?” Audrey mocked. “The military was exploiting these women for their labor.”
“I know, but…” Dana’s hand moved in her hair, trying to tamp down a few threads. “Her dad’s at least trying to make a connection.”
“Well, it’s not working.”
“Yeah,” Dana muttered. “Neurotypical behavior.” The silence strained for a moment before she broke it with a deep breath in and out.
“Neurotypical behavior?” Lindsay repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dana was saved by the tinkling sound of a cell phone. Audrey dug through her bag and swore. “For chrissakes, can I not leave for a few hours without the damn place burning down?” Dana debated whether Audrey was cursing her family or her colleagues, until she answered the phone in a crisp tone. “Yes, Gary, what is it?”
Audrey’s eyes clouded over a few seconds later. “Cecilia Hermon?” she asked, and Dana’s hand skittered over her printouts where Cici’s name blazed in all caps. “What does she… hold on a sec, Gary.” Audrey cast a vague look around the table before leaving.
“Good God,” Heather muttered, as they watched Audrey retreat to the back of the Starbucks, squashed between the bathroom and the community message board. “What could that be about?”
Lindsay shrugged wordlessly. Dana dropped her gaze down to the forgotten submission. The typed pages in front of her blurred into swirling shapes, spiraling out from the center.
“That bitch.” Dana startled, her head jerking up at Audrey’s reappearance. “That fucking bitch made a complaint against me at work.”
“Wait, what?” Heather’s voice rose, the question indignant. “How could she do that? She doesn’t work for the university.”
“Yeah, well apparently it doesn’t matter when someone accuses an associate dean of harassment.”
The espresso machine hissed behind the counter, and Dana jumped a little as a barista bellowed out an order. Audrey was gathering up her things like a hurricane picking up steam.
“You can fight this, can’t you?” Lindsay’s voice squeaked. “What can she possibly have on you?”
“The emails, what else?” Audrey gave her friend a look of consternation before brushing past her. “I used my university account.”
“But that’s private, right?” Dana was surprised to hear her own voice. “You can’t get in trouble for something private. You said -”
“They were… before you made them public.” Audrey’s tone was sharp, and then sound blurred together. Babies wailed, the credit card readers shrieked, and Dana put her head down. By the time she looked up, her friend was out the door, trailing the scent of Pumpkin Spice behind her.
The stone settled fully into the pit of Dana’s stomach later that night, as she stared at the words on her computer screen. Bianca’s email signature was swirling and colorful, in a way Dana assumed only a librarian could get away with. Above the signature, Bianca’s words were a stiff, black Times New Roman.
I have to ask you, Audrey, Lindsay, Heather and Cici, to not come into the workshop anymore. Your personal problems are taking attention away from the rest of the class, and it is unfair to ask them to endure this behavior. I am sorry for the way things worked out.
“Neurotypical behavior,” Dana said weakly. Chloe lifted her head from her paws where she sat perched on the edge of the couch. Dana extended her hand towards the cat, but her fingers fell a few inches short.
She moused back to her inbox, noticing a synagogue email in the promotions tab. Setting Kavanah (Intention) for the New Year, the subject line proclaimed. Dana clicked on it, catching on a picture of Rabbi Finkelstein in professional dress. English and Hebrew mirrored each other to announce upcoming Rosh Hashanah services.
Dana turned the alien Hebrew over once or twice in her head. Did Riley find it alien? They were no less than two months away from her niece’s bat mitzvah, but Riley never talked about it. Dana remembered listening to the cantor chant her Torah portion on a cassette tape, back in the stone age. Maybe the clergy now sent out MP3s? Without her devices, would Riley have to practice publicly on the family computer, a dress rehearsal for the big day?
Her phone trilled, and Dana lunged to grab it, causing Chloe to jump off the couch. She keyed in her password, but instead of a text message she saw one of those ubiquitous alerts about some product or a news headline.
Dana scoffed at this meaningless piece of tripe, then she clicked onto her friend’s name. Her thumb hovered over the text box. She could see Audrey’s easy smile over her sports sweatshirts, her thick, brown hair tied into a halfback. Rabbi Finkelstein’s confident gaze blurred on Dana’s computer.
She left Audrey’s picture and thumbed to another contact instead, not giving herself time to think before she hit the green call button. Dana began to pace as the phone rang. “Hey,” she warbled when Cici answered. “I think we need to meet.”
Dana pulled in front of Cici’s house to the foreboding sound of classical music. Inside the front room, somewhere beyond the lacy curtains, she thought she made out the figure of Cici’s daughter, her hands trilling up and down the keys of a grand piano.
She’d lost a bit of her nerve on the drive, and as she pressed the doorbell she half-hoped the playing would mask the ringing. But just a few moments later, the clacking of heels hit wood and the front door opened.
Cici stood on the threshold, her red and white pantsuit trimmed with gold edges. “Well.” Her voice was dry. “Here you are.”
“Here I am,” Dana agreed unsteadily. The centralized air from inside wafted around Cici, like a protective cocoon. Dana squared her shoulders. “Can I come in?”
“May I,” Cici corrected crisply, eyes raking Dana up and down. Finally, she stepped aside.
“Go on into the parlor,” she instructed, pointing to where the music was coming from. “Carly, sweetie,” Cici spoke in a sugary voice to the young girl at the piano. “Will you give us a moment, please? Mommy has something she has to discuss with this lady.”
Carly took her hands off the keys, arching them up and away. She gave Dana a cursory glance, pigtails bobbing as she left the room. Dana had the fleeting inclination to stop the girl, ask her if she liked the Dawson Boys. She let out a short chuckle at the incongruity.
Cici rounded on her. “Leave my daughter out of your games,” she hissed.
“I’m sorry,” Dana blurted out, feeling instant shame although she hadn’t meant to mock the girl at all. “I’m sorry for all of it,” she continued. “For everything I said in those emails. For calling you an attention…”
“An attention whore?”
“Yes.” Dana’s voice was small. She took one step back towards a deep pink, Victorian-looking couch. But Cici made no move to sit down, so neither did she.
“What’s your objective here, Dana?” Cici asked “Have you come to beg readmittance to the writing group? In case you didn’t notice, I’ve been kicked out, too.”
“It’s not about that,” Dana insisted, swallowing down the fresh pang of loss. She trained her eyes behind Cici, on the empty piano. “It’s about this complaint you’ve made against Audrey. I don’t know the specifics, but I do know it’s only making a bad situation worse.”
From the hallway, the pendulum swing from a grandfather clock broke the silence. “So, you came here as Audrey’s lapdog.” Cici’s voice was a sneer.
“She doesn’t know I’m here,” Dana insisted. “I’ve just seen how much this hurts her. So, I’m asking you to stop.”
Cici’s eyes glinted black. She took a step forward and then a step back, clicking her teeth. Dana dared a glance at her, only to find Cici staring off into space herself. “I have something for you to hear,” she said.
Cici led a bewildered Dana back into the foyer. Next to the grandfather clock was a half table, set in the same mahogany wood. Cici pressed a red button on the answering machine.
“Listen, Cecilia, I’ve called my attorney.” Dana startled at the sound of Audrey’s voice, loud and belligerent, like a cornered dog. “And we will slap you with a defamation suit so hard if you don’t stop this bullshit. You think you can get away with ruining someone’s career because you’re an entitled fucking narcissist? You’ve pricked the wrong cactus, girlfriend. Those were private emails, and I’ll make sure you and Dana Miller go down so hard you’ll be puking legal paperwork on your deathbeds.”
“Me?” Dana’s chest contracted, like a fist was squeezing it flat. Her legs quavered, and Cici grasped her elbow.
“Don’t worry, she won’t go through with it.” Cici’s said. “Just wanted to give you a look into who you’re defending.”
“This whole thing is so…” Dana gulped, and the tears started running down her face. She swiped at them, breaking free from Cici. “I just wanted to make things better! I made a mistake. I’m… I’m a good person.”
“Stop playing the victim card.” Cici’s voice was sharp. “You started this. You wrote those horrible things about me. And you still think you get to go around calling yourself a good person?” Dana looked down as Cici’s legs, turned and moved away from her. The front door squeaked open, pointedly.
Dana slunk into her apartment in the dark. Chloe’s pitter patter of paws came towards her. “Hey, girl-” she stopped herself. When had she picked up that nickname? All she could hear was Audrey’s voice echoing in her head.
She brushed past the cat and fell onto the couch. Riley’s photos glistened from the faint light outside her window. Dana’s eyes traveled from one to another, snagging on an outstretched limb, a wide smile.
She leaned and grabbed at the laptop on her end table. The light from the screen blared up like a siren. Squinting, she clicked on her bookmarks, over to a Twitter page marked DawsonBoyzBae110405.
“#DizgustingKate is a SLUT! She looks 30 & lives in moms basement #FAKEFAN.” “BOOHOO, #DizgustingKate says shes VICTIMIZED. You STARTED this, bitch. #FAKEFAN.”
Dana’s breath rattled in her ribcage. She rubbed her hands into her eyes, still raw and tingling from her outburst at Cici’s. The tweets stayed like imprints in the darkness, all of their smug condescension and glittery emojis. She forced herself to read through a few more, hand hovering over the cursor. She remembered Riley’s enraptured look, perhaps mirroring Dana’s own, as she bent over her screen, typing this excretion into the ether. Somewhere on the other side, a real person was at the end of her niece’s bile. Dana closed her laptop and tried to imagine the other girl’s face.