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Chapter 1.
"Where are you??"


At first, Grant barely noticed. He had the menu to finish, another meeting with the lawyers, line cooks to interview. He sent a text and promptly forgot it, unaware when she didn’t respond.

The next day, Thursday, he called her on his way home from the farmers’ market. He got her voicemail but didn’t leave a message. She’d call back, he figured, when she had the time.

He spent most of the weekend in the kitchen—fine-tuning his chimichurri, reorganizing the walk-in. Sometime Saturday afternoon, he forwarded her an article about the Falcons defensive line, and he did wonder, for just the second it took the email to send, why she hadn’t called him back. But then he returned to the dry storage, the lagging P.O.S.

After a long Sunday reviewing receipts with the Group’s accountant, though, Grant started to wonder. Sure, they’d gone days without talking—weeks, even—but since Eliot moved back to Atlanta three months before, they hadn’t gone this long.

It had been ten days since the last time he saw her, at Noni’s on a drizzly weekday afternoon. He’d had a lunch meeting with three of The Phoenix Group partners, and though they’d been complimentary—they loved his projected margins on appetizers, his use of color on the plate—they still kicked the soft open to the end of the month. Grant was starting to doubt Bravata would ever open its doors. Like anyone in the business, he’d worked in short-lived restaurants, for new owners who fired the whole staff in less than a week, but this time, it was his menu, his kitchen, his name on the door. He’d worked for years to get here, sacrificed a marriage and who knew how much sleep. Another delay in the schedule meant more waiting, more chance of developing an ulcer or not making rent. All he could think to do after that meeting was drink too much.

His third beer had arrived when El did. She slogged her messenger bag on one stool and plopped into another, crossing her legs beneath her. “Looks like I need to catch up,” she said, and she ordered a shot of whiskey and the darkest beer they had on tap. “All right,” she said. “Tell me everything.”

And Grant had—all the questions they kept asking, every subtle shake of their heads. El nodded along and scattered in enough profanity to show she was listening, but now that he thought about it, she had seemed distracted. Twisting her hair into tight knots around her finger. Glancing at the door whenever a shadow passed. He’d just chalked it up to the life of a freelance journalist, the dizzy energy it took to make a living. When El was on a deadline, she was liable to gnaw her lip bloody or stop mid-sentence to fill a page in her notebook. He never took it personally.

He tried to remember if she’d mentioned a trip she was taking, maybe some story for a travel website, but his head was aching from the hours with a calculator. He sent her one more text—Where are you?? Im starting to worry—before falling asleep in his recliner.

Grant woke Monday to his phone ringing. He jumped to grab it from the charger, groggy but expecting El on the other end.

Instead, it was a nurse from Sunset Villas Assisted Living. Frank had collapsed in the dining room during breakfast, just as he stood to bus his plate. A stroke, they thought. The ambulance was already in route to Grady, but they couldn’t get a hold of his daughter, who, the nurse added, hadn’t been to see him all week. Grant’s was the only other number in the file.

He called El at least a dozen times on his way to the hospital. He even drove by her place, a carriage apartment in Virginia-Highlands with an iron gate and ivy swooped across its door. He knocked and knocked, but no one answered. He couldn’t see a thing through the blinds. No one answered at the main house either, but the stack of AJCs peeking from under the grill cover suggested the Braddocks were on one of their trips. By the time he got to Grady, where he found Frank in a coma and no sign of El, Grant officially started to panic.

Yes, he knew El could be flighty. She could forget to pay her power bill, or leave her keys in the front door, or even, when Grant visited her in Chicago three years before, fail to show up to a Cubs game after paying extra for seats behind home plate. But she never—never—went a day without talking to her father. She would answer his calls in the shower, hop a plane when doctors ordered a second round of tests. Frank was the only real family El had left, the reason she quit her job and moved home. She’d visited Sunset Villas nearly every day since. Whatever kept her from his bedside couldn’t be good.

As he waited for Frank’s doctor, Grant opened Twitter on his phone. He’d signed up for the app years before, when the cute sommelier at that French place nicknamed him Flintstone on account of his flip phone, but he rarely checked it. He followed a few dozen people, most of them Falcons players and stand-ups, but Eliot used it all the time. “Part of the business,” she liked to say. He guessed it did help her get her name out there.

Her last tweet was dated a week before, the link to a review of some album with the hashtag #newthemesong. Below that, other links, other hashtags, a few responses to names he didn’t recognize, a meme about Game of Thrones. A few people had tweeted at her, mostly in response to messages she must have sent but he couldn’t see. In the days before her last tweet, somebody named YAWPmusic left four separate messages: two links to YouTube videos, a meme of a dog with a bucket on its head, and most recent, an image of a pencil sketch that looked an awful lot like Eliot, with the hashtag #myprettylady.

He was about to close the app when a new tweet appeared on her page from someone named J: seems that she has gone and changed her locks on me.

Grant didn’t know what it meant, but it made him worry. He didn’t want to waste any more time not knowing if El was okay, so he found the bag of Frank’s clothes in the closet and checked the pockets. He snapped a picture of the phone extension and left a note on the whiteboard, in case Frank woke up. Traffic had probably died down by now. He figured it wouldn’t take long.

In the car, he kept replaying those hours at Noni’s. His soggy complaining. Her loyal scoffs. He remembered that one moment, after a few more rounds, over a plate of fried calamari. He’d been in the middle of criticizing one of the partner’s logic when he looked up to see El staring past his shoulder. Her face tense and gray. He scanned the room behind him and saw people waiting for a table, a line forming for the bathroom.

“What?” he’d asked. “Who is it?”

But El didn’t answer. When he waved a hand in front of her face, she snapped back to him.            

“Sorry,” she said, reaching for a kernel of fried batter. “Totally spaced out. I think I need to eat more. You were saying?”

Looking back, Grant wished he had asked what she was thinking. He remembered how she’d told him about the weeks before her mom died, how she would hover in the hallway or sit right up against El on the couch, as if she wanted to say something but never did. What might El have told him if he’d shut up long enough to ask?

He decided to call Nick. It rang a couple times, then he heard a rustle, the fumble of fingers on keys.

“Sorry,” Nick said. “My man, Grantland. How goes it?”

There was a reason most of Grant’s friends were old ones. Just hearing Nick’s voice slowed his heartbeat, made him blush at his frantic pulse. They’d been friends since their early 20s, back when he picked up shifts at The Punchline and Nick took the stage at open mics. They’d been like their city back then, unshaven and hungry, engines gaining speed. Before the Beltline and back pain, the movie crews and full-time jobs. It steadied him, somehow, to hear their years of late-night drinking, those dreams as restless as their bodies, tucked behind Nick’s words. He exhaled.

“Hey, man. Is this a bad time?”

“Headed to a meeting at Woodruff Park, so I got a minute. What’s up?”

“Have you talked to Eliot recently? Like in the last week?”

“Nope. I left her a message on Thursday, I think. Thought we might have some work for her, but she never called back, so I gave it to someone else.”

Grant cringed a little. Nick had been good enough to give El some freelance jobs for Creative Loafing while she got on her feet in Atlanta. Her portfolio was good, but Grant’s connection hadn’t hurt. He’d be pissed if she screwed this up.

“Ok, well, if you hear from her, will you tell her to call me?”

“Sure,” Nick said, an ambulance passing in the background. “Everything okay?”

“Her dad had a stroke this morning, and nobody can get a hold of her. I’m headed to her house now.”

“That sucks, man,” he said. “But I’m sure she’s fine. Probably just passed out after writing all night or something.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Grant turned off North Highland, onto El’s street. “I just got a feeling something’s wrong.”

“That Eliot is a tough chick. She’s smart. There’s got to be a good reason—what was that group y’all were in? The Unsinkables?”

          “The Unshakables.”

          “Right. That girl is unshakable. You’ll see.”

          Grant told himself that Nick was right. El was tough, and not in some polished, deodorant-commercial kind of way. She was scrappy and blistered, dirt under her nails. All that she’d lived through—her mom’s suicide, the attack—El had learned how to take life’s punches standing up.

          The night they met, that clammy July more than 20 years before, her balance had been the first thing he noticed. In the whirl of that emergency room hallway, all those cops on their radios, the nurses, the screams from down the hall. That guttural boom, the one he still hasn’t forgotten, echoing from every TV. She’d smiled at him, this wispy white girl with her head wrapped in splotted gauze. She reached over and handed him a cup of lime Jell-O. “Something tells me,” she’d said, passing him a plastic spoon, “I get to skip my algebra test on Monday.” All that chaos, his leg mottled and throbbing and never going to bend quite right again, and somehow Grant had laughed.

          “Listen,” Nick said. “I got to jump into this meeting, but I’ll ask around and let you know if anyone’s heard anything.”

          Grant thanked him as he pulled into El’s driveway and grabbed Frank’s keys.

          A fat oak tree hid the path to her door, so it was quiet, only the soft munch of fallen leaves beneath his feet. He knocked a few times, but she didn’t answer, so he stabbed the first key at the lock. It didn’t fit, in either direction. His hands were shaking, he realized. He dropped the ring and bent to get it, a bloom of nausea up his chest.

What if she was in there, he thought. What if there were a reason she couldn’t answer the door or the phone? That familiar rumble started in his ears, as if the ground were moving, his lungs hardening like cement. He could almost hear El’s voice, as usual. Say it, she told him, so he did, out loud: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”

          He stood up, shook his head, and the rumble faded. The walls stayed in place. A short one this time, but still, it had been months since he last heard it, maybe a year.

          Bracing, he inserted the second key. A soft click. Gears groaning as they turned. He wiggled the knob, as he’d seen El do dozens of times, and placed his shoulder to the door. With a push, it opened…

 



Chapter 2
"Wasn't she beautiful?"


Grant could smell it as soon as he opened the door. The waft of artificial lemon. A prickle of bleach. Gone were the familiar scents of blackening banana peels, dishes moldy in the sink, warring stubs of incense heavy with vanilla or jasmine or sandalwood. No coffee mugs, half empty, lined her bookcases. No stacks of paper as high as his calves. No brimming trash bags, or hand-washed clothes draped on chair backs, in various stages of drying. Except for a scuff of red clay by the welcome mat, the floor looked clean enough to lick.

That was the first thing he noticed, the eerie hygiene. The second—after he threw open doors and peered under the bed—was that Eliot was not here, and by the looks of it, she hadn’t been for days. Dust had started to tint the blinds. The microwave and stove lights flashed zeros. A hint of pink inside the toilet bowl. Whoever cleaned the apartment had been thorough, but even unprompted, a place tended to resume its ways.

There had to be some clue to her whereabouts, a forgotten receipt or confirmation number, so Grant started looking. Sitting at her desk, he opened drawers and fingered the paper clips and tracks of staples. A stack of brochures for yoga centers in Serenbe and Blue Ridge. He found empty envelopes and Post-it notes, and, somehow, a box of floppy discs. He smiled at their labels. Lit/Bio essays, one said. P.G. movies. Damn, he thought, that girl never threw anything away.

The bottom drawer revealed a file cabinet, each of the suspended folders labeled by utility: “Power,” “Cable/Internet,” “Car Insurance.” Grant wondered how she had so many bill stubs from just three months here, so he pulled out the one labeled “Water” and leafed through the pages she’d thrown in. He found print-outs of the Water Department’s website, GoogleMaps directions to some place in East Lake. Halfway through the stack he found the most recent bill, due the day before. El had scribbled a date across it: “paid 9/28.” Just in the last three months alone, she’d had to go downtown twice to turn her water back on, her checks having bounced. How could she afford to pay this one early?

He sorted through the other files with increasing speed. Car insurance: “paid 9/28.” Gas, the same. Cable and renter’s insurance. Even the rent for Frank’s apartment, which Grant had thought came straight from his Social Security check. But here was a letter from Sunset Villas confirming receipt of six month’s rent—paid in advance. The date on the letter? October 2, 2017. Grant had no idea how or where Eliot would get that kind of money…or why.

If the apartment hadn’t been so quiet, so muted without the hum and bustle of Eliot, he might not have heard it. A tinny sound. A melody, like muffled hand bells. Grant threw back the cushions, the basket of woven blankets. Dizzy, he closed his eyes to hear it better. The bedroom, he realized. Around the dresser. He pulled open the drawers, dumped the folded socks and concert t-shirts on the bed, but the dinging continued, as if it were coming from the walls. He nudged out the dresser as the sound disappeared. In its place, a white charger cord snaked from an outlet, leading to the gap underneath the dresser’s two-inch legs. He lowered to the carpet. With a tug, an iPhone slid out and, after it, two spirals of a notebook. Grant reached for it, already knowing what it must be.

A black spiral notebook, like the kind SCAD students used for sketching, only smaller, purse-sized. Eliot’s notebook, the one he’d seen her write in dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. She bought them in bulk, he knew, so he tried not to panic as he picked it up. It could be an old one, all its pages covered in Chicago. But as he opened the front cover, a gulp rose in his throat. Atlanta, it said on the first page, September - _______ 2017. A majority of empty pages confirmed it. This was the notebook he’d seen just 10 days before. The one she never left home without.

He thumbed through the pages, Eliot’s bulbous letters in all directions. Phone numbers and names he didn’t recognize. Untethered words and phrases, sentences without beginnings or ends. A drawing of some sort, edges stained with coffee rings or smudged ink. He stared at the pages as if they were those old 3-D posters, as if willing a shape to spring into view.

Then he turned his thoughts to the phone. Eliot often forgot it. He’d seen her empty her messenger bag on restaurant tables and car hoods, only to later rediscover her phone in the refrigerator or on the lip of her bathtub. So it wasn’t the presence of her phone that sent pulses of static up his neck and down his arms. It was the realization that, without it, Eliot could not call for help.

He pressed the phone’s home button, and the screen lit up, announcing 42 missed calls. A good number of those were his own, Grant knew, and the nurse from Frank’s apartment. But there had to be others. He tapped to get the password screen, where he tried her birthdate, the year she graduated from high school, but then he stopped. He had no idea how many wrong passwords he could try before the phone wiped itself clean, and he didn’t want to find out.

He stood in her squat bedroom, trying to decide what to do next. He scanned the walls and furniture for anything out of place. There was her framed poster from a Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The chipped tile coasters. The floral tray that held her rings and necklaces. On the wide bedside table, a few paperback books—a biography of Olivia Newton-John, a guide to day trips from Atlanta, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A framed picture of Eliot and Frank the day he moved her into college. Another of the two of them in Times Square. In each, El’s edges blurred as if in motion. Frank’s hand on her shoulder like an anchor to keep her from blowing away.

Behind these frames leaned the gauzy Polaroid she used to tuck under her pillow and prop on dashboards. A blonde woman in a white robe draping open at her thighs, her face flushed almost as red as the fist-sized splotch of a birthmark across her cheek. She’s laughing at the toddler in her lap, the kind of laugh you could almost hear, even now, twenty five years after she left a note taped to her steering wheel and stepped off the edge of Brasstown Bald.

“Wasn’t she beautiful?” Eliot had asked him the first time she slipped the picture from the inside pocket of her pea coat. “Don’t I look just like her?”

Grant didn’t remember what he said that first time, or the countless times she’d asked since, but he didn’t see much resemblance, except maybe the broad shoulders, the throaty laugh. The filmy gray eyes of someone who knew how to guard her secrets. The woman made him angry, to be honest, protective of that little girl she’d left behind. He hoped abandoning your life without warning wasn’t an inheritable trait.

On a shelf by her closet, he noticed that old picture of them standing in front of Grady the day he was discharged. He still had the crutches, and that itchy brace, but enough patches of El’s hair had grown back that you couldn’t see her scar. They were smiling in the picture, but Grant remembered how nervous he’d been to leave that day, how much he dreaded the quiet of his own bedroom and the woozy clamor of his high school halls.

“Just breathe whenever it gets too much,” Eliot had told him on the elevator down, while his parents hurried to get the car. “Just breathe and say your words. Out loud, remember?”

“I remember.”

“Say them with me now, just for practice.”

His voice still warbled back then. Hers somehow already had the hint of a smoker’s rasp. Together, they repeated his mantra: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”

“That’s us,” Eliot added, as the elevator settled and wrenched open its doors. “The unshakables.”

In the worst moments of his life since, he’d thought of that elevator ride. When he got fired or screamed at. When cops pulled him over on unlit roads. The weeks and months after Kendra left him. Those nights he slept in his car. The loudest noises, the shakiest ground, he remembered it. Their voices, melding, became his theme song for keeping on. Standing there, he hummed it now.

Just then, her phone rang. He almost dropped it, he was so startled. The screen lit with its announcement: J mobile.

He thought about that cryptic message on Twitter. He couldn’t let the call go by, so he swiped at the screen until the ringing stopped and, tentatively, brought the phone to his ear.

“Hello,” he said.

He never expected what he heard next.

 


Chapter 3
"Separate worlds"


Grant wasn’t hungry, but he knew he should order something. His knee was throbbing, and he hadn’t eaten all day. The calamari, his usual go-to, reminded him of the last time he was at Noni’s, the last time he’d seen El, so he ordered a Caesar salad and picked at it. Beside him, Eliot’s notebook and cell phone waited, still codes he couldn’t crack.

They’d sat at the far end of the bar, the last time he saw her, by the windows. His back to the room, he remembered the sloshes of traffic on Edgewood, the smeary red of brake lights. Against the fogged glass, Eliot had been like the sun in how she warmed him. Her soft gray eyes, sleeves tugged to her fingers. A head shorter than him and half his weight, she was still one of the safest places he knew. 

He thought again of that moment when Eliot’s face had tightened, her gaze fixed on someone or something behind him. He scanned the room, searching for any clue in the black-and-white photos, the wood booths, the pulsing old TV. But every surface stared back at him, blank.

Grant’s phone buzzed, and he grabbed for it, knowing he shouldn’t hope for anything but hoping all the same. 

We got estimates for new linens. Need your ok.

It was Allen Roberts, the restaurant’s head investor. A nice enough guy, with his pocket squares and heavy silk ties. He started the Phoenix Group more than a decade before, and in that time, every restaurant they’d opened—the Thai fusion place on the Beltline, that Italian steak bar in Buckhead—had won Best of Atlanta more than once. They were careful investors, thorough too, so Grant knew he should jump whenever they said to, lucky as he was for their backing. But today he couldn’t imagine talking about tablecloths, or tasting menus, or sous chefs. So he left the text unanswered and put his phone away.

The patio door opened behind him, and he turned hopefully. On the phone, he’d described himself: black, late 30s, bald with a beard. But he had no way to recognize her. He wasn’t even certain she was coming, or what she might do to him if she did.

“Whoever you are” she had said, when he answered El’s phone. “I am tracing this call and contacting the police.” Her words had been spiky, as if spoken from gritted teeth.

“What?” Grant had answered. “Who are you? Is Eliot there?”

The woman went silent for a second, and he’d been afraid she’d hang up, but then her syllables came back harder, open-mouthed. “If you hurt a hair on her head, I will personally—”

“Wait,” he said. In one breath, he explained who he was and how he got into her apartment, leaving out the bits about Frank’s stroke or coma. He’d played enough poker to know that even with a bad hand, you didn’t show all your cards.

“You’re at her place? I’m coming over.”

“No,” he’d said, more alarmed than he would have expected. The apartment walls felt suddenly close, the scar down his knee starting to burn, so he suggested Noni’s. She agreed and hung up before he could ask her name.

The woman in the doorway didn’t match that voice, but she walked toward him. She was thin-wristed and wispy, gleaming from the light on her blue-black hair. She wore a man’s tweed blazer and blue high-tops, but Grant could pick her up, giant messenger bag and all, with one arm. The tangle of nerves in his gut loosened a little.

“Are you?”

“Grant Maxwell.” He reached out his hand.

She didn’t take it.

“Have a seat.” He nudged the stool out with his foot.
 
She perched on the edge but held her bag with both hands in her lap.

The bartender approached. The woman shook her head at the offer of a menu. “Water’s fine.” She eyed Grant’s beer.        

“It’s been a rough morning,” he said, as he swigged the last of his Tropicalia and ordered another. “Are you going to tell me your name?”

“Jules,” she said. 

“That’s a start.” He noticed a slight shake to her fingers as she lifted her glass. “How about another easy one? How do you know Eliot?”

“She’s my girlfriend. You?” Grant’s surprise must have registered on his face because a wry smile seeped onto hers. “You didn’t know she’s gay?”

“What? Of course I did” Grant said. “Who do you think took her to her first topless bar?” he laughed, but Jules didn’t. He coughed and continued. “I just didn’t know she had a girlfriend.”

Jules faced forward and started to weave a napkin between her fingers. “Yeah, well, it’s still new. We haven’t really defined it or anything.”

“Did you know about me?”

“A pudgy Luther wannabe who sometimes breaks into her place? I think I’d remember if she’d mentioned you.”

Grant couldn’t help but smile. “That’s El for you. She likes her worlds separate.”

Her eyes sliced to him. “And which ‘world’ are you, exactly?”

He took another sip before answering. “I’ve known Eliot 20 years—wait, no, 21. Did she ever tell you about—” Grant pointed above his ear, roughly where the shrapnel had hit her. “We met in the hospital.”

Jules peered at his head, skeptical.

“I was hit here.” He tugged up his pant leg to show the scar, from ankle to knee cap. “Couldn’t walk for weeks.”

He didn’t usually lead with this backstory. Even with El, it wasn’t a topic he liked to discuss. He’d drive ten minutes out of his way just to avoid passing where it happened. Last year, he didn’t watch TV for a month after accidentally catching an anniversary documentary on ESPN. He’d come closer to actually dying a few times in the last 21 years, and he’d surely been the target of far more personal hate, but there was something about the spray of metal that night, flakes of fire like confetti. It never felt far away.

“I’d be happy to cut it open and show you the screws—”

“No,” Jules blanched. “I believe you.”
 
“Sorry,” Grant said, swallowing another sip. “It’s just—I’m kinda freaking out here. Where is she?”

Jules shook her head. “I’ve tried calling, like, 100 times. I’ve gone by her place, tweeted her.”

“That was you today. That message about her door key?”

This time, her smile was softer. “It’s from a Little Tybee song. Our first date, we went to see them.”

Grant knew the band, had even taken El to one of their shows when she first moved back, but there was something about Jules’s tone that sounded like the rattle of a chain link fence, as if marking how far he could go. He changed the subject. “Do you know this person?” He scrolled through his phone to find the name. “YAWPmusic?”

She barely glanced at the screen. “Oh, him. Eliot’s not-so-secret admirer.”

“Who is he?”

“A DJ. She interviewed him for that music blog, maybe a month back? He’s been trying to woo her over Twitter ever since.”

“Doesn’t he know she’s gay?”
 
Jules looked up flatly. “Have you been on the internet? The world’s full of creeps who think all lesbians need is one good roll in the hay with a ‘real man.’”

“Is he crazy? Do you think—” Grant said.

“He’s harmless. A delusional, egotistical puppy dog, but a puppy dog all the same.”

Grant lowered the phone, unconvinced, but before he set it face down on the bar, he tapped a finger on the screen so quick, he was pretty sure Jules didn’t notice. “So, when did you see her last?”

“Monday night.” Jules patted the bar. “Here, actually. We were supposed to go to this DJ showcase at the Music Room, but she was all stressed. Said she had a deadline coming. So we rescheduled.”

“And?”

Jules shrugged. “It’s been crickets since. She could be ghosting on me or whatever, but, I don’t know. She just didn’t seem like herself on Monday.”

“What do you mean?”

She tucked her hair behind both ears. “It’s probably nothing. But she just seemed, I don’t know, depressed or something. She kept talking about how as kids, we think we can grow up to be anyone we want, but then we make all these choices, go to school, move places, and suddenly we don’t have that freedom anymore. We’re stuck.”

Grant felt a tightness spread across his body, seizing him in place. Eliot, for all her renewable energy, wasn’t the Energizer bunny. She never used the “D” word, explaining her days in bed and that semester she took all Incompletes as times she wasn’t “well,” but Grant had seen the bottles in her medicine cabinet. He’d read the spines on her bookcase. She always bounced up after a few weeks, at most, and could go months or even years before another spat of existential questions sent her to the Tom Waits Spotify station. So he’d never really worried about her. But now, with the unanswered calls, the reminders of her mother in that Polaroid and even the scar beneath her hair, Grant felt the panic in his fingertips.

Jules was still talking. “It was probably nothing to worry about. She’s probably on assignment somewhere and forgot to tell us. I just…I don’t know. I don’t like it.”

Grant reached for the notebook.

Jules recoiled. “Where did you find that?”

“In her apartment.”

“She wouldn’t—”

“I know,” Grant said. “And her place was spotless. You could eat off the floor.”

“Are you sure you were at the right apartment? I’ve seen Eliot leave an apple core on her toilet seat for, like, days.”

“Something isn’t right. I just know it.” He pressed the phone to light up its screen. “I’ve tried cracking her PIN, but no luck. You don’t know it, do you?”

“Yeah, right.”

“Ok, then, look through the notebook. There’s about ten pages there, some notes, numbers. I can’t make sense of it.”

The bartender checked in, and Grant saw Jules eyeing the bottles.

“Go ahead,” he suggested. “It might help.”

“A Bullitt. Neat.”

“That-a girl,” Grant said. He went to the bathroom and then paced behind her for a few minutes. “Anything?” he finally asked.

“That could be a phone number.” Jules pointed to a string of digits on the third page.

“It’s too short.”

“That ‘1’ could be a slash if you look closely. So the 4 before it—”

“Area code.” He fumbled for his phone, but Jules was faster.

“I’m going outside. I need the air,” she said, standing. She downed the rest of her drink in one shot and started to move toward the door but turned. “What about her compu—” Jules froze. Her eyes sharpened at the wall of frames by the window.

“What?” Grant asked. “What is it?”

“Monday night, when Eliot and I were here?”

“Yeah?”

“She ordered food, but the place was crazy busy. I still wanted to go to the show. She told me to go on, she could do work while she ate. At the door, I looked back to blow her a kiss. She was taking one of the frames down.” Jules looked at Grant. “She snapped a picture of it.”

Grant stood up and moved toward the wall. “Which one?”

Jules shook her head. “I don’t remember.” Her dark eyes flitted across the wall. “Wait,” she grabbed his arm. “It was that one.”

Together, they reached for the frame.
 


Chapter 4

"This is all we know"



 The ride downtown, they barely spoke. Grant tried to focus on the lunchtime traffic, his GPS, but he couldn’t stop wondering about the framed review they’d read at Noni’s. Jules insisted the braided gold frame was the one Eliot had taken down a week ago. She’d seen her trace its columns with her finger before returning it to the wall. But why would Eliot care about a list of Atlanta’s best entrée salads, especially from two years ago, long before she packed a U-Haul in Chicago and drove it home. The article had run in Creative Loafing, so maybe she knew the writer? But even then, why the need to hold it? Why take a picture of it with her phone?

In the passenger seat, Jules gripped the door handle and winced at every pothole and metal plate.

“Sorry,” Grant said, after a bump on Auburn Ave. “I need new shocks.”

“It’s the bourbon,” she said, gesturing at her stomach. “I’m not used to liquor before lunch.”

“Should we get you food? I think there’s a sandwich place around the corner.”

Jules shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”

Grant wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time, if he should trust this woman. He had only her word that she even knew Eliot, much less dated her, though he couldn’t imagine why Jules would be there if she didn’t. It was just that talking to her reminded him of deboning a fish: the delicate motion, the tug on his knife, the slippery slick meat. He couldn’t help thinking that she knew more than she let on.

They found a parking lot at Luckie and Forsyth and, after feeding dollar bills into a machine, walked the block and a half to the Central Library. He wasn’t sure, exactly, what they were doing there, only that some of the numbers in Eliot’s notebook had formed a phone number for the Ivan Allen Jr. Reference Department, which the woman at the front desk told them was on the second floor. Jules had been right back at Noni’s when she said they might as well check it out. They didn’t have any better ideas. But after she’d told him what Eliot said last Monday, he didn’t want to waste time on dead ends.

A pretty blonde woman sat behind the main desk, talking to a light-skinned man in a track suit. As they waited their turn, Grant surveyed the computers and shelves of cloth-bound books. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he always felt a flush of nostalgia in libraries. As a kid, he’d spent so many Saturdays chasing his brothers around the stacks, tracking down brightly-colored picture books LeVar Burton had recommended. The metal carts, the puff when you opened an old hardback. The Read posters with L.L. Cool J or Shaq. It all reminded him that once life had been simpler, that the answers to his biggest questions had once been filed by call numbers and dates.

“How can I help you?” the woman said. She had green-blue eyes and a smile he couldn’t help but return.

Jules started talking. She was cagey at first, asking what the Reference Department did, why someone might visit there. Questions so vague she could have said them to a wall and gotten as much useful information. But Grant had an idea.

“Have you—can I ask your name?” he interrupted.

“Mallory.”

“Nice to meet you, Mallory. I’m Grant, and this is Jules. We’re looking for our friend. She’s been missing for a few days, maybe a week.” He raised his phone to show her the screen. “Have you seen her?”

The librarian studied a picture of Eliot the day she moved home, sweaty and tired by the U-Haul, a half-eaten slice of Fellini’s in her hand.

“Sorry,” the woman said.

“Her name is Eliot Wiley. Ring any bells?”

The woman shook her head. “What makes you think she’d be here? Shouldn’t you be talking to the police?”

Grant had wondered the same thing. In Eliot’s apartment, at Noni’s. But he’d seen enough cop shows to guess what they would tell him. Eliot was a grown woman with every right to pick up and leave without warning. Even if the police started to look—calling friends in Chicago, the staff at Sunset Villas—it wouldn’t take long for someone to describe her as “spacy” or a “free spirit,” supporting any theory that this was just another of Eliot’s larks. Plus, going to the police took time, maybe a lot of time, and Grant had the dizzying suspicion that they didn’t have enough of it to spare.

A man in a tie and black-rimmed glasses emerged from the office to their right. Gray-flecked hair and the hint of ink along his breast pocket, he looked like the kind of guy who killed it at team trivia.

“Brian,” he said, when Grant asked his name and showed him the photo. “Maybe,” he said. “We get so many people through here.”

Jules sifted through her purse and took out the notebook, opening it to the page with the phone number. “This is all we know,” she said. “Sometime in the last couple of weeks, she called here.”

The librarians looked at the page. “That’s the direct line to the back office,” Mallory said.

But it’s not the main one people use,” Brian added. “We don’t usually give that number out.”

“So why would someone call this line?” Grant asked.

The woman shrugged. “Maybe another librarian gave it to her. At another branch. In case she had a question?”

“Sometimes we give it to people we’ve been working with. Like if somebody came in here to do a lot of research and had follow up questions, we might tell them to call us there. Unusual, but it happens.”

Jules flipped to other pages. “Can y’all just look through these, see if you recognize anything? A name or anything.”

Brian and Mallory bent over the notebook. As they scanned its pages, Grant paced in messy circles, considering where to go next. Maybe Frank’s apartment? Local hospitals? Try to track down the Braddocks to ask if they’ve heard from her? They needed a plan.

“Wait a second,” Brian said. He pointed to a list of codes. “These numbers—031491, 031591. Could these be dates? March 14, 1991? March 15?”

They all huddled over to look.

“GDE?” Grant asked. “Are those initials? A filing code?”

“Or the name of a newspaper,” Brian suggested. “The Georgia Daily Eagle ran until, what, ’99? 2000?”

Grant could feel his heart through his rib cage, thumping. El could be like the hiccups when she was on a story—persistent, full-bodied. She regularly pulled all-nighters back in Chicago, confirming sources’ details, fact checking her own memory. It was probably nothing, just background for some story she hadn’t written yet, but still. It was worth a look.

“I’ve never heard of the Georgia Daily whatever,” Jules said.

“It wasn’t that great of a paper,” Mallory said. “More of a tabloid in its approach. Not afraid to print gossip as news. If I remember right, it went bankrupt after it published some conspiracy theory about Monica Lewinsky and lost all its ad money.”

“But the ’91 issues. Do y’all have archives of them?” Grant asked.

“Sure,” Brian said. “Mal, you want to show them?”            

The librarian walked them to the back wall, where they found chest-high filing cabinets labeled in Eliot’s code. “The GDE boxes should be….” They walked past two, maybe three cabinets before Mallory plucked a square box from the drawer. “Bingo,” she said. “GDE 02/20/91 through 03/21/91.”

Grant could feel the sweat gather on his forehead. Beside him, Jules reached for the canister, her face as blank as the cabinet tops, hard and unyielding.

“It would help, of course, if you knew what you were looking for,” Mallory said, as she led them back to the large matte screens by the stairs. “Early 90s, the GDE was big, maybe 30 pages. Any idea what you hope to find?”

“Not a clue,” Grant said.

Mallory threaded the film under the glass, through the loop, and explained the buttons. “If you want to print,” she said, “it’s 10 cents a page.”

“Thanks.” Grant pulled another chair beside Jules. “Y’all are awesome.”

Mallory smiled again, her eyes kind and sad. “I’ll be right over there, if you need help.”

Sitting down, Grant watched Jules fast-forward through pages of the classifieds and movie times, Wachovia ads, Final Four rankings, op-eds about the first President Bush.

“Here,” Jules said, slowing. “The front page. March 14.”

They both leaned in.

March 14, 1991 had been a Thursday and—judging by the articles on high school baseball teams, low-cost lasagna recipes, and the Roswell quilt show—a slow news day. There was a piece on a high school student arrested for throwing rocks off a highway overpass. Another about the start of a recycling program in Cobb County. The Braves lacked depth in the bullpen, someone argued. The Dow was up 32.68 points. Still, Grant and Jules read every word of every column, zooming in and out, nudging the dial to bring pictures into focus. They even read the fine print on a half-page ad for Lord & Taylor’s upcoming sale on bedding and men’s wear. They were that careful.

Grant was about to get up to stretch his legs and stare at something not six inches from his face when they found it. Local news, section C, page 4. They knew it immediately.
 


Chapter 5

"Are you our guy?"


Police Search for Missing Atlanta Mother
Byline: Alex Crusoe
Section: State News; Section C, Page 04

 
Blairsville, Ga. – Union County police officers are searching for a missing Atlanta woman on Brasstown Bald.
 
Susannah Wiley, 34, has been missing since Tuesday morning, when she was last seen dropping off her 9-year-old daughter at E. Rivers Elementary, police say. She never returned to collect her daughter after school.
 
Her friends were not that worried at first. “Susie is one of the most dedicated moms I know,” said Mary June Pittson, whose son is in the same grade at E. Rivers. “But she can be forgetful.”
 
Husband Frank Wiley did not notify the police of his wife’s absence until Wednesday morning, only an hour before a Brasstown Bald park ranger found Mrs. Wiley’s Volvo station wagon in a lot near the Arkaquah Trail. Police performed a thorough search of the car and removed some items for further analysis.
 
A stay-at-home mom, Mrs. Wiley is best known around her Buckhead neighborhood for her elaborately patterned dresses and a collection of turbans. “She used to be a painter or something,” Arlene Kodiak says of her next-door neighbor, “before she became a mom.”
 
Local police searched the Track Rock Road area Wednesday but did not have the equipment to lead a full-scale search up the trail, which leads to the highest point in Georgia. “We’re enlisting the help of mountain rescue and experienced hikers,” Lt. Doug Ahearn said Wednesday evening. “Our hope is to find her in time.”
 
Sources close to the Wiley family are less optimistic. “There’s only one reason she’d leave that girl of hers,” Mrs. Kodiak says. “And that’s if she had no other choice.”
 
**
 
Grant sat back and kneaded his palms over his eyes.
 
“What the—” Jules started.
 
Before she could finish, he stood to walk the open carpet behind them. Over the two decades he’d known El, he’d only gathered snippets about her mother, details dropped into unrelated stories, her name lettered on the inside covers of a few books. She’d committed suicide, he knew, but not how or where, or that Eliot had been one of the last people to see her alive and among the first to know something had happened. He knew El’s mother loved Carole King and Joan Didion. He knew she used to drink white wine with ice cubes and let Eliot finger paint their living room walls. He’d seen that Polaroid. Still, Susannah Wiley had been as real to Grant as Paul Bunyan or the Tooth Fairy, all legend and tall tale, easily forgotten. But now, to think of that March morning, that afternoon. Eliot waiting in that carpool line. Frank on the phone to the police. It all felt real in a way it hadn’t before. It felt like growing up.
 
His leg stopped aching after a few minutes, so he went back to his chair, where Jules waited with her mouth open.
 
“Do you think—” she said. “This last line. ‘No other choice.’ Are they implying someone killed her?” She turned a dial to zoom in. “And this bit about the analysis? That sounds suspicious.”
 
Grant tried to focus on what her questions might mean, the letters of Frank’s name pulsing behind his eyes, but the thought just made him dizzy. Even seated, he worried he might tumble to the floor.
 
 “The 15th,” he said finally. “Didn’t she have the 15th on the list?”
 
Jules advanced through the rest of March 14th more quickly, pausing only long enough to scan the headlines. “I don’t get it,” she kept saying. “Why would he wait until the next day to call the police?”
 
When they landed on the front page of March 15th, Grant mashed the print button until he heard pages spill from the machine by his feet.
 
“Any reason we needed 900 copies?” Jules asked bending to gather the loose pages. “You know it’s 10 cents a page, right?”
 
“Sorry,” Grant said, standing. “I need some air. I’ll be back in a minute.”
 
“And these?” Jules asked, holding up the extra sheets.
 
He swiped one and pointed to a box near the desk. “See that? They recycle.”
 
Outside, the air nipped at his arms and ears. He walked to the far side of the steps, past where men in oily shirts and ball caps tossed chunks of bread to the pigeons. Just over the wall, Forsyth Street whistled with sudden brakes and car horns.
 
His phone chimed with new emails, so he took a second to delete the reminders to pay his cable bill and set his line-up for his Fantasy team, the coupons for the Gap and limited-time-only deals on Goodyear tires. He skimmed an email from Allen Roberts with attachments and a request for Grant to stop by his office, the sooner the better.
 
In his camera app, he found the number to Frank’s room and dialed it. The phone rang and rang, but no one picked up. He called the number listed on the website and got shuttled between nurses and operators until he reached an administrator who said there’d been no change in Frank’s condition.
 
“We’re missing some necessary forms,” said the woman. “Do you know if he has a D.N.R.?”
 
Grant called Sunset Villas next to ask about the paperwork. The gum-chewing woman who answered said the residents were responsible for their own valuables. “Maybe it’s in his apartment?” she smacked.
          
“Thanks anyway,” he said.
 
Jules’s questions kept cycling through his head like propeller blades. The article’s language had been vague, their implications apparent only if you wanted to find them, but he couldn’t ignore the prickles they brought to the back of his neck. Why didn’t he know more about Susannah’s death? All those nights splitting bottles of bourbon with Eliot, all their late night phone calls across time zones, why did the topic never come up? Even in her syrupy seasons of depression, when the most communication she could muster took the form of one-line emails sent at 3 am, why did her burden never seem to include losing her mother? And why had he never thought to ask?
 
If only Frank were awake, he could ask him. He could look him right in the eye. Not that the hospital gave him any reason to hope the man would emerge from his coma soon, if ever. Asking for his D.N.R. wasn’t a good sign.
 
He leaned against the low stone wall, tapping his phone against his chin. He could call his parents, ask one of them to go to the hospital. Maybe having someone there, talking to the doctors, would help. His parents had always liked Frank, even if his dad called him “the accountant,” despite Frank’s forty-year career in computer programming. Retired, his parents now puttered around the house all day, reorganizing the attic or reading thick hardcover biographies. They would go to the hospital if he asked them to, but then he’d have to tell them that El was missing, which would send his mom into heart palpitations and his dad into his Buick, driving around Eliot’s neighborhood, hollering her name from his window as if she were a pet. With only sons, his parents thought of Eliot as a surrogate daughter. He’d never be able to shake them, or the sound of fear in their voices, once they knew.
 
That was when his phone rang and, distracted, he answered without checking the screen.
 
“You’re a hard man to get a hold of,” Allen Roberts said, a smile as slick as his hair in those words. “You aren’t avoiding me, are you?”
 
“No, sir,” Grant said. He cringed, remembering that Roberts hated to be called “sir,” especially by someone “with whom he did business.” Roberts had told him this often enough, but the word was reflex to Grant, like walking between a woman and the road. When speaking to a man who spent weekends in Asia and leased his own jet, Grant was going to say ‘sir.’
 
Thankfully, Roberts ignored the gaff this time. “I sent you some documents. The updated logo, the linen estimates. I need your feedback A.S.A.P.”
 
“Yes, sorry,” Grant stammered. “I’ve had something come up today. Something personal. Can it wait?”
 
Roberts stayed silent for a moment. The thump of a car door closed in the background. “We need you to be our guy, Grant,” he said finally. “Are you our guy?”
 
Roberts had asked him the same question six months back, when he offered the deal. Grant’s own restaurant, his own menu. Everything he’d ever wanted like a glittering ball of light he could reach out and touch. Are you our guy? But this time, Roberts sounded skeptical.
 
“I would hate to have to go in another direction this late in the game.”
 
Grant felt his stomach churning. “I’m your guy. No doubt. Just give me until tomorrow morning.”
 
“10 am. I’m meeting with Curtis and Doyle then. Don’t let me down.”
 
“I won’t,” he said about four times before he realized Roberts had hung up.
 
Looking at his phone, he noticed an alert from Twitter. YAWPmusic had accepted his follow request. Grant shielded the screen from the sun so he could read the guy’s feed.
 
Whoever he was, YAWPmusic liked to tweet. Post after post about some DJ or soundboard, wobbly videos of strobe lights, lengthy threads about the lineup at Imagine Music Fest. Grant clicked on a few links to YouTube videos for DJ YAWP, spiraled tracks of rapid-fire beats and echoes. Distorted notes like the Doppler Effect. Back on Twitter, he started clicking on every link and image until he stumbled on a flyer from a week before. A showcase at the Music Room, twenty or so different names on the bill, including DJ Yawp. The same night Jules last saw El at Noni’s. It must have been the show they had intended to see. The one Jules went to alone. Why hadn’t she told him this when he’d asked about YAWPmusic? Did she know this guy? Was she covering for him?
 
He felt a tremor up his legs as he walked back into the library. He could hear the inside of his chest. His only dream on the line, he couldn’t waste any more time.
 
Upstairs, Jules’s chair was empty. The glass plate on the micro-film machine yawned open, the bulb blaring a white light. No librarians at their desk either. He needed Jules to explain herself, but at the same time, he didn’t want to tip her off, not if there was more to her story than she was telling. So he wrote a quick note on a sheet of paper from the recycling bin and left it by their machine.
 
He was halfway to his truck when Nick answered. “I need a favor,” he said, instead of hello.

 


Chapter 6

"Looking for someone?"


Even in the middle of a work day, traffic moved slow down Peachtree, past the hospital, the Fox. UPS trucks idling for deliveries. A tour group inching their sensible shoes off the sidewalk and into the road. To outsiders, this stretch of Midtown beat as the heart of Atlanta, with its glass-faced buildings and thrumming cars, and even Grant had to confess to a dull thrill in his chest when he drove through it, a reminder he lived somewhere important and alive. Most of the time, his city felt more like a small town where no one was anonymous and your past was hard to shake. He recognized people he’d never met in the grocery store. He had a favorite Waffle House, where the line cooks knew him by name. Every new person he met turned out to be cousins with a high school classmate or working in the same office as that guy who used to live next door. Ex-wives were hard to avoid at Home Grown on Saturdays. Flakes of memory hard to blink away from stoplights and exit ramps. It felt as if this sprawl were really his body split open, bits of his muscles strewn in every direction, his blood and his bone. Maybe that was why Peachtree was just another street to most Atlantans, no more a landmark than Boulevard or Marietta, Piedmont or MLK. On maps, Midtown might be the chest of Atlanta, but its heart beat all over town.
 
He found a spot on 11th, in that lot across from the hotel. He paid the machine and walked downhill to Juniper, then a block north to Einstein’s. Nick had promised to get Chad to call him as soon as he was back in the office, but Grant couldn’t wait that long. He’d met the music editor at a couple of parties for Creative Loafing, maybe a panel or two at the Center for Civic Innovation, so he was pretty sure he would recognize the guy, even though the patio was teeming with diners and there was a wait for a table inside. He hoped Nick wouldn’t be mad that he crashed Chad’s meeting, but it would take only a minute, Grant kept thinking, maybe two. He just needed a name.
 
He walked past the host stand without pause, hoping they would assume he knew where he was going. He circled the dining room with low-slung padded booths full of chatter, tables clinking with silverware and plates. All those faces like blank walls as he passed them, nothing to see.
 
Turning back, he nearly collided with one of the black-shirted guys from the host stand. He apologized and took another scan of the room.
 
“Looking for someone?” the host asked with a smile that was almost convincing.
 
“I’m cool,” Grant said, as he jostled past him, through the line of people waiting, and into the bar.
 
Flat-screens played talk shows from the rafters while a couple guys in dress slacks laughed wetly from their stools. Most of the high-tops were taken, servers milling between them with trays. In the back corner, when Grant leaned toward the window, he spotted Chad at a table with two guys in suits.
 
He tried to think up an opening line as he crossed the room, but before he knew it, he was standing over them, clearing his throat. “Hey,” Grant said.
 
Chad looked up and smiled vaguely. At once, Grant knew the editor didn’t recognize him, but he barreled on all the same.
 
“Sorry to interrupt. Can I talk to you for a second?”
 
Chad looked confused as he tapped his chest. “Me?”
 
“Just for a minute.”
 
He hesitated before putting his napkin on the table. “I’ll be right back,” he told the suits.
 
Grant led him to an open space by the chain curtain to the bathroom.
 
“What’s this about?” Chad asked from a few steps away.
 
“I’m Nick’s friend, Grant Maxwell. We met a couple of times.”
 
Chad nodded, still unconvinced.
 
“Sorry to blindside you, but it’s an emergency. Do you know a guy goes by the name DJ Yawp? He’s local, played The Music Room last week?”
 
Squinting, Chad started to shake his head.
 
“I’m hoping he can help me find Eliot Wiley.”
 
The name seemed to knock Chad’s memory into place. “You’re her friend. The chef.”
 
“That’s right. I don’t know if Nick mentioned, but we can’t find Eliot. This Yawp fella might know something.”
 
“I never heard of him. But these guys,” he pointed over his shoulder. “One of them’s a promoter. Got a couple EDM acts on his bill. Want me to ask?”
 
“Please.” Grant heard the desperation in his voice.
 
Chad returned to the table, and Grant watched him explain, the other men with their ears tilted in. He tried to read their lips but couldn’t concentrate. Behind him, someone cleared their throat. He turned to find that same mousy host with his arms folded.
 
“Sir,” he said, carefully. “Our dining rooms are for customers only. So if you’re not dining—”
 
“Just one minute,” Grant said, turning away.
 
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
 
Grant was about to lose it on this guy, not because it was unreasonable to kick out some crazy person stalking your restaurant. All the diners he’d worked in, he knew that better than most. But because the clatter around him was rising like frantic saws on a violin. The walls, they were swelling, ever closer. He could hear the moment coming, the crescendo. He could feel it licking his skin.
 
Mercifully, Chad reappeared before he had the chance to say anything else. The host backed up but didn’t disappear.
 
“Dan there,” Chad pointed. “He never worked with the guy, but he knows him. A Skrillex wannabe named Kenny Blake. Says he works at the Botanical Gardens, of all places. Grounds crew or something.”
 
Grant could have hugged him. “I owe you, man. Seriously.”
 
“I just hope she’s okay. I like that Eliot Wiley.”
 
“Sir,” the host interjected.
 
Grant threw up his hands. “I’m going. I’m going.”
 
Outside, he considered walking to the Gardens, it was so close. With all this adrenaline, if he hadn’t known better, he’d think he could run there. Chest out, the wind against his back. But then he remembered the long looping driveway, the impatient incline, and decided to drive.
 
He paid the ticket fee with the credit card he used only for emergencies, but declined the map. He’d been here enough times with his parents. They loved the Christmas lights.
 
Inside the Gardens, he took random turns with purpose. First to the Canopy Walk, around the path in the woods, back to the woman who grew from the ground. Then up the hill and toward the children’s section, ticking off corners like numbers on a clock. He circled the new restaurant and gift shop, eyeing the employees’ nametags. At the coffee stand, he asked the woman if she knew a Kenny who worked there, but she shook her head. He bought a water anyway, suddenly dry mouthed.
 
People inched like ladybugs around him, as if Eliot weren’t missing, as if they had all the time in the world. Grant blinked at the skyline over the trees and felt the day draining, El drifting further away. He found a bench by the fountain and sat down. The coils in his knee were pulsing. He extended his leg and kneaded his thumb in the socket. From his pocket, his phone vibrated. It was Nick.
 
“I’m sorry, man,” Grant said after he answered. “I know I should have waited.”
 
“What?” Nick asked. Wind echoed in the background, probably an open car window, along with the muffled hum of a radio.
 
“Nothing. What’s up?”
 
“It might not be anything, but I thought I should tell you.”
 
Grant sat up. He felt his muscles ready.
 
“One of our photographers for ‘Best of’ just stopped by. Tall girl named Audrey. You know her? Anyway, I asked had she seen Eliot, and she said not in the last week, but get this: the day after the party, Eliot emailed her asking for pictures. Not ones we wanted to publish, but any test shots she took to get the lighting right. Audrey thought it was weird, but sent them.”
 
“And?”
 
A car horn blared on Nick’s end. “Stupid f-ing drivers. It’s not a turn lane,” he yelled out the window. “Anyway. Don’t know if it helps, but thought you’d want to know.”
 
“Can you send them to me? The pictures?”
 
“Hold on.” Grant thumbed through his inbox. “What address did you use?”
 
“The ChefGMaxwell one.”
 
“The Yahoo? I haven’t used that address in forev—”
 
Nick laid on his horn. “You ever heard of a turn signal, buddy?” he yelled. “Gotta run, Grantland. The roads are getting dicey.” With that, he hung up.
 
Grant clicked to Yahoo and tried to remember his password. It had been years since he switched to Gmail, one of the thousands of inconsequential changes you make after going through a divorce. As if you could become a new person so easily.
 
He’d never been very creative when it came to passwords. He used 123456 for a while, 8675309. Even his pin number at the bank was his birthday. But Kendra had been a stickler for online security, insisting he change his passwords every six weeks, so he started using his favorite foods in alphabetical order. Avocado. Bacon. Crab Rangoon. As if naming hurricanes, he moved to the next letter each time. Dumpling. Edamame. He smiled as he thought through them, their flavors almost itching at his tongue, until he reached the one he’d never had the heart to change.
 
But before he could enter the whole password, he felt a knock against his foot. He looked up to find a guy bobbing behind a garbage cart.
 
“My bad, man,” he said, steering around him. Then he reached toward Grant’s water bottle. “You done with that?”
 
Grant had to squint to see it, the sunlight so crammed behind the guy, spilling over his shoulders. But there, across the heart of his polo shirt, in scrawny block letters, it said Kenny.