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Consume Me

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Three weeks later, after spending days walking past the Elias-Clarke building with the twin temptation of the job and the possibility of seeing Miranda again in all her morning glory, Andy got drunk and bought two tickets, an Air Delta ticket from Boston Logan International to Cincinnati Kentucky International with a departure date that was two months in the future, and an Amtrak ticket from New York Penn Station to Boston Back Bay with a departure date of tomorrow, setting her net worth back to a precious four grand.

The next morning she woke up next to a perfect stranger and was in the shower before she remembered the tickets. She dressed and rushed to Lily's. This was one of those drunken decisions triggered by the survival instinct of her subconscious and she was going to see it through.

Lily had not been home, so when the train left the glittering city behind, there had been no goodbyes. Andy settled into a seat, grateful for the silence, and called Nate. She left no voicemail when he didn't pick up. They had spoken sporadically before Andy had been fired from The Mirror, and he had called once afterward to offer help. Lily must have tipped him off. Andy had hung up on him and he hadn't called again. She left a polite text asking if she can stay in his couch for a month, her desperation showing only in the note's conspicuous bluntness. Then she slipped off into an uneasy sleep, clutching her phone, and was shaken awake several hours later by a fellow passenger.

"I think it's your stop next," he said. "Here, you dropped this." He was holding her phone. She took it and thanked him. He was around her own age, his blond hair and boyish features standing out against an outrageously purple sweater.
"Anyone coming to pick you up?"
"No, I don't think so."
He leaned back in his seat across the aisle from her.
"Want a ride somewhere? I left my car at the station."
"No, thanks."
"Frank. Frank Templeton." He offered his hand and she shook it.
"Andy."
"Nice to meet you, Andy. You go to school here?"
"Nope."
Awake now, she checked her phone for messages. There was nothing.
Frank was waiting for her to elaborate.
"Visiting family."
"Oh." He nodded. "I'm the reverse. My cousin lives in New Jersey. I go to MIT."
They were silent for a while when Andy's phone vibrated. She answered it.

"Andy! Where the hell are you?" Andy felt guilty at the obvious panic in Lily's voice.
The train slowed and Frank stood up and reached for his bag in the overhead locker.
"Lily, I'll call you back in a second."
"Where are you?"
Frank got Andy's rollerbag down and they walked together to the exit.
"I'm going to call you back, okay?"
"Just tell me where you are."
"Boston. I hope."
"What the hell did you--"
"Lily, I had to do this. I'll stay at Nate's and start looking for something. Don't say anything to my mom, please? Not yet anyway."
"Fine, fine. You could've told me you were leaving."
"I'm sorry."
Andy adjusted her backpack and dragged her Rollerbag towards an empty bench. Her fingers were already numb from the freezing night air. Tiny, fluffy snowflakes were settling on her shoulders.
"Lily, I'll call you back. I got to go."
"Alright, take care of yourself, bye."

It was one in the night. Andy looked around at the rapidly emptying station. She was shivering, but if she got all her sweaters out, she should be able to spend the night here and be alive to call Nate in the morning.
"So, visiting family, eh?"
She looked up to find Frank grinning at her.
"Leave me alone," she huffed and went back to digging out sweaters from her bag.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing. Please leave."
He sat next to her on the bench and fished out two Mars bars, tore the wrappers and held both out to her.
"Pick one and I'll eat the other. Just so you know they aren't poisoned."
She took one and tried not to wolf it down.
"My roommate isn't home for another week." He looked even more like a boy now that he was brushing snow out of his face. "You can sleep on my couch."
"Thanks for the chocolate, but no thanks, I can't do that."
"Are you sure?"
Andy nodded and stood up to find a bench away from him when the train station suddenly swayed. Frank's arm shot out and she gripped him for support, blinking away the black spots. She had fainted only once in her life more than a decade ago, although there had been several close calls. Something metallic was rushing in her bloodstream to her head now. Terrified, she simply sank bank into the bench. Her last meal before the chocolate had been two boiled eggs for lunch yesterday. When she opened her eyes, several minutes had passed and Frank was nowhere to be seen. Her backpack and rollerbag were tied to her hand. She began to untie them when he plopped down beside her.

"Here," he pushed a hamburger under her nose. "Nothing else was open. Didn't know what you liked. That's a cheeseburger. There's a McChicken and coke inside." He pointed at a paper bag he was holding.
She took the burger and mumbled her thanks.
"I'll have the McChicken then," he settled into the bench, carefully arranged the coke cans between them. Andy ate in silence while he chatted on. "It's so pretty outside. It becomes dirty snow in a few days, of course, and then it becomes ice and it's kinda annoying. Everyone here hates the snow. I suppose you've seen it all before but this is only my second time. I miss Texas a little but I think I'll stay here forever--"
"You said you had a couch?"
He nodded, taking his first bite.
"Can I stay there tonight?"
He nodded again.
"Thanks."

Frank's Ford Focus was parked in the station. It was a gift from his mother, he explained apologetically, as if Andy's impoverishment was somehow his fault. He pulled out of the station, his maneuvering awkward, and settled into an enthusiastic chatter. Frank's mother was a successful attorney in Dallas, where he had grown up. His father had died a few years ago and he was an only child. Did Andy like New York? He preferred Cambridge to anywhere else. His apartment was at Somerville, another twenty minutes away. He took the tee to MIT everyday. He had a roommate who was leaving in two months and moving in with his girlfriend. The three of them were working on an internet startup together. Andy was going to just love it here. Could she see the Charles river in the distance? Wasn't it gorgeous? Andy should have come three weeks ago; Fall was when Boston looked its best. Did she like biking?

"I don't like girls," he volunteered suddenly. "I mean, I'm gay."
"Oh," Andy was charmed. "Me too."

===

The next morning, Andy woke up to a frantic call from a hungover Nate who was convinced that she was mugged and left to die on a sidewalk. Once reassured of her well-being, he offered her his couch and shower. She thanked him and hung up. Frank had made her take his roommate's room over her half-hearted sleepy protests. She showered and dressed, careful not to leave traces of herself and walked out to find a note scrawled in an untidy handwriting.

"Andie, Good Morning, hope you had a good sleep. There's pizza and milk in the fridge. Call me if you need anything - 6171358262. Wifi passwd is the reverse of that. I'll be back after dinner."

She ate a slice of cold mushroom pizza feeling like a particularly amateur burglar, looking out at the quiet, alien streets of Somerville, but not particularly afraid. She felt the flight ticket sitting in her inbox at all times like a talisman pinned to her chest. The solid deadline reduced her shapeless dread into four words: two months, four thousand dollars. It was all-in.

She connected her laptop to the wifi and set to work, emailing her resume to every single publication in Boston and Cambridge. It was a generic email with a single paragraph tailored to each magazine. She would ask Nate to find her a cafe job tonight.

Eleven days after she got down the train in Boston, one month before a glorious white Christmas that she would spend alone but not unhappy, Andy Sachs was once again gainfully employed at The Somerville Times for a pay that was slightly more than the barista salary. This last fact did not stop her, Nate, Frank and Frank's roommate from emptying two bottles of cheap red wine in her honor. Frank's roommate was moving out in two months and she was offered his room. She spent those two months on Nate's couch, not eager to dip into her paychecks. She also stuck to cheap staples and the newly acquired habit of writing at public places in the mornings.

Boston was a city of students. She loved the book stores and the museums, the math graffiti and the science jokes scribbled in the restrooms, and the infectious energy of the young startups, but she thought of New York every day, and followed the city's news compulsively, only slightly ashamed of the time she spent skimming Page Six.

Frank's friends, uniformly male, nerdy and awkward, spent several nights in her apartment poring over whiteboards and quarelling over the mysterious software their startup was supposedly building, studiously ignoring Andy who sat quietly reading and listening in a corner, until one day when she brought Nate home and he whipped up a delicious boeuf bourguignon. They mellowed towards Andy after that, and she made sure to stock the fridge with extra beer.

Andy's generosity was not impulsive. She had started an anonymous technology news blog until now consisting only of job listings stolen from the social media streams of various Boston companies. She published a post every other day, working on her prose where content was lacking, and spent her free time absorbing the history and the lingo of boston's technology scene. Frank and his friends dropped a tip her way every now and then.

She was pinning a leaflet with a blog post on a cafe noticeboard when she noticed a man sipping hot chocolate and reading the top leaflet on her stack. His hair was an unfortunate shade of bright red bordering on orange and he was older than Andy's father. Andy smiled hesitantly at him. He was one of those people Andy could easily picture as a child and a youth. Overachieving, silent, often bullied, cunning. When he finished reading, he turned to her and informed her politely that she was a clueless idiot.

"What surprises me," he continued, "is that you are the other kind of idiot. Not the usual kind one finds here."
"Excuse me?" He had delivered an insult, but she detected a compliment.
"New around here, aren't you?"
"Yes. Andy Sachs. Reporter." She offered her hand, striving to reserve her judgement in the face of his ill-fitting tee shirt and baggy jeans.
"I thought you were a student," he shook her hand limply. "Paul Stanton. Meddler in things. So what do you report on, Andy Sachs?"
"Uh. Local news. I work for The Somerville Times."
"Why, then, does that paper wax lyrical about facebook being google's threat? Quite incorrectly, if I may say so."
"It's for my blog." He sounded quite superior for someone with his hair. Andy acted on impulse. "Can I buy you coffee?"
"Sure. Do you know, if your blog was actually on the internet, which I very much doubt seeing your technical prowess, or lack thereof, I would read it everyday? People these days seem to think tech news has to be horribly dull, perhaps to lend an air of studied gravity to the otherwise, ah, transient nature of the news, what with billions being made and lost in five years. I like your style. It flows. It reads more like, umm--"
"Fashion news?" Andy supplied.
"I wouldn't know, but probably, yes. It has more grace. It elevates the substance, makes it dramatic, but not at the expense of honesty."
"Thank you," Andy said gratefully, hoarding up his words.
He warmed his hands around the steaming mug.
"What did you mean earlier, when you said I was an idiot?"
"Well, living here, you ought to know that people don't find out about blogs from coffeeshops. You must advertise it elsewhere." He glanced at the leaflet. "You write well, but nothing is more common than wasted gift. Find someone with knowledge of search engines to help you. This city is full of those people. Technology is invented here everyday, after all." He stood up, and Andy stood with him. "Anyway, it was great meeting you, Andy."
"May I walk you to wherever you are going?"
"You may. I'll be walking far. So, what distant corner of civilization did you spring from?"

Before the four miles to his house were exhausted, Andy learned that Paul was a retired professor, that he had a son who was a high school teacher in New York, and that his wife had died from cancer last year. Only after she was done narrating several things about herself that she had not thought to mention to Frank or Nate did Andy realize that she was no match for his disarming candor and tactful questions.

"She sounds like a remarkable woman." It was the first full sentence Paul had spoken in several minutes.
"That she is," Andy agreed fervently.
"Greedy, spiteful, power-crazed, but remarkable."
"I don't know about--" Andy started, but he cut her off.
"No, she is all of that." His glance was shrewd. "She is also old."
Andy stared ahead. Neither Nate nor Lily had divined in months what took Paul an hour. "It doesn't matter," she mumbled.
"I suppose not," he nodded. "There's this quote that I've been trying to remember. There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, 'Consume me'. I'm not a great fan of Virginia Woolf, but sometimes she said things that were so delightfully, uh, economical."
"Yes. The Waves. Lovely line."
"I'm so happy to have found you, Andy Sachs, despite your taste for men's names. You can go far in this town, and not encounter a soul who has heard of Woolf."
Andy laughed. "I like you too."

===

Andy bribed Frank's friends with alcohol and food, and they guilelessly snorted over her technical abilities and pointed out how much of a better job she could be doing. One of them bought her a domain and installed Wordpress in an attempt to show her how terrible Blogspot was. Frank spent a whole day setting up a Facebook and a Twitter page, teaching her what to write there, and how often, and why. Andy soaked up their words. It took her three months, but at the end of it, her blog was a first page Google result for several boston related search keywords. It was also entirely anonymous, because she hadn't wanted to risk appearing competitive to her employer.

It was no wonder, therefore, that she spilled her morning coffee all over the laptop keyboard when a laconic comment appeared, three months after her first meeting with Paul, simply reading "Congratulations. -MP". Andy stared at it for a long time, questions springing in her head. The questions were quickly suppressed by a nameless sensation building up within her, struggling to break free from her throat. She wanted to laugh and cry, but mainly she wanted to dance and dance and dance.

She ran to her phone and dialled a number that was etched in her permanent memory before a voice spoke up within her. It was the voice that made her save money compulsively and carry a pepper spray in her handbag at all times. What would she say on the phone? Thank you? For fucking up Andy within an inch of her life? Perhaps she would inquire after the wellbeing of the latest impeccable boyfriend frowning at the camera in last week's Page Six? She paced back and forth in her room, creating and discarding a dozen replies to the comment. It was no good. It was probably sent by Emily, anyway. She would ignore it.

Later, she asked Frank if someone could find out that she was the author of the blog. "Of course, dummy," he had laughed. "Your name is on the whois entry of your domain. You could remove it but it would cost you a little. Here, let me show you. You have to learn domain management, it's not that hard. Although I agree that Godaddy's web interface sucks. Maybe you want to transfer your domain to a better service? Hey, did I tell you about that new web domain startup? Could you move? I need your keyboard."

After that, Andy poured every free second into the blog. She networked obsessively and attended every tech event that she could. New startups started contacting her for mentions. If she wrote about them, it was with a refined meticulousness that the content barely deserved. She never forgot Paul's words, and used her blog as a playground for various narrative styles. Only the authentic conviction in her words, acquired from countless meetings with the startup founders, glued the posts together into a blog. She hoped Paul would never see her unpaid internship piece.

She visited him as often as she could, and an unlikely friendship grew between them. If Andy looked deep within herself, she might have discovered that the friendly charm she directed towards Frank and his friends was somewhat calculated. But Paul had no tips or connections to offer her. There was something harmless about his lively curiosity and utter lack of ambition that set her sensors down. He was also a topnotch critic of her writing, generous with praise, firm in criticism. Andy didn't know why he put up with her, but she kept bringing him books she guessed he had not read but would love, and he baked her delightfully chewy brownies that he could not eat because of his diabetes.

One day, Andy opened the gate with a book in her hand to find a little boy regarding her from the roof of Paul's house. His red hair instantly gave his ancestry away.

"Hi, I, uh, got up here," he said. "Can you please help me get down?" Andy knew that Paul's son was a divorced school teacher in Manhattan. He rarely visited Paul. She tried not to probe into this because Paul was uncharacteristically reticent on the topic.

"Are you Nicholas?" She asked the boy, searching for the best way to climb up the roof. Several minutes later, Andy was scratched and Nicholas was on firm ground again. They entered the house hand in hand to find Paul and a man -- Nicholas's father and Paul's son, Andy deduced -- in a staring contest across the kitchen. She cleared her throat.

"Andy," said Paul, somewhat agitated. "This is Seb. Seb, Andy."
"Andy," said Seb easily. Rugged, black haired, at least six foot tall, in clothes that actually fit, he was nothing like his father. "I see you've already met Nick."
"I found him on the roof," Andy smiled. The boy let go of her hand and rushed to the refrigerator.
"Thank you," Seb sighed. "That's the third time today."
"No problem. Umm, Paul, sorry," Andy said. "I'll come back later."
Paul opened his mouth but Seb cut in. "No, don't go because of us. We were just going to leave."

It would be a week before Paul revealed the reason for this rare visit to Andy. Nick was sick, and nobody seemed to know what was wrong with him. He wouldn't eat and fell ill every month, and the list of diseases that he did not have according to the various doctors grew steadily. Paul and Seb seemed to have agreed to bury their long estrangement because Andy ran into Nick several times more in her weekly visits.

Andy also sucked up to her boss at office, and sometimes stayed late to help other people. She declined a bonus, full of smiling girly sweetness, and tipped a colleague on a breaking news story, for which he went on to earn a promotion. She was under no doubt about her future in Boston. It did not exist. She only needed the job for immediate rent and food but she was determined to get as many people as she could into her debt.

Headhunters started contacting her regularly soon after her blog became a front page Google result for several Boston related technical words. Ten months after she had gotten out of the train in Boston, she moved back to New York as Associate Copy Editor for a popular online technology publication. Frank and Nate didn't want her to go but Paul knew better. Her salary doubled. On her first day at the new office, she received an anonymous note of congratulations and flowers, leaving her giddy for days. Surprisingly, she didn't feel particularly pathetic about rearranging the paltry contents of her minuscule studio apartment such that the potted white orchids would be the first things she would see after waking up.

She worked late on the first Friday, reluctant to face the empty apartment, and left the office at midnight and walked directly towards Elias-Clarke, her feet on autopilot. There was little chance that anybody was still working there, and she simply wanted to take a look and leave. But when the elevator doors slid open, Miranda was behind her desk, hunched over, slashing furious red lines at something offensive on a notepad. Andy was at the door when she looked up. Her face instantly froze into stone. She wore a Chanel suit with two of the buttons undone, revealing a gold sheath with a scandalous neckline beneath the suit.

"Hi?" Andy offered weakly, keeping her eyes rigidly fixed on Miranda's face. At first, every inch of her being screamed at her to look down, but Miranda's face soon caught her attention. The cool makeup was flawless as usual, but there was something about the eyes that spoke of an intense exhaustion. Andy had become acquainted with this look during her Runway days. It meant that the eighty hour work weeks were compounded by troubles at home.
"Andrea," Miranda said, her voice the same as ever.
Andy's face broke into a smile far wider and sunnier than the one she had intended. Miranda smiled back, but it was gone before Andy could be sure.
"Sit," Miranda said at last, when it became evident that Andy wasn't going to speak.
Andy had no idea what she was doing here. "I--I was back in New York and--" Her mouth was dry. "I just came by to say hi and, uh, I'll just go now." She turned.
"Andrea, I believe I asked you to take a seat, not babble idiotically under your breath."
Andy sat down opposite Miranda. There was a new picture of the twins sitting in the beach. Definitely staged.
"Well?"
"I'm, uh, back in New York."
Miranda nodded. Her eyes were held open as if by a sheer force of will, a fact that did not stop her from surveying Andy's blouse critically.
"Thanks for the note. And uh, the flowers. They were orchids, weren't they? I put them next to a window because I read online that they need the sun--"
"At office?"
"What?"
"Did you put them next to a window at your office?"
"Oh! No. In my apartment."
"They might stay in bloom for three months if you water them every two weeks and give them two hours of sunlight every day."
It was unreal to hear Miranda talk about something as domestic as taking care of flowers.
"Well, thanks again. That's a nice picture. Very, uh, arty."
Miranda frowned. "Arty?"
"I could explain over a coffee."
She didn't smile, but her eyes lost some of their awful weariness and her mouth relaxed from its battle line. "I see you've picked up some spirit in Boston."
"Among other things. I have to go now." Andy looked down. This desk had never held a single superfluous thing. She drew the smallest notebook towards her, and took the Montblanc pen from Miranda's hand, careful not to let their fingers touch, her breath catching at her own audacity.

She wrote down her phone number and name -- the full name -- on the last page of the notebook, fighting down a fatal impulse to take the hand that was resting so unsuspectingly at the edge of her vision. Andy had been surprised the first time she had truly noticed Miranda's hand. Miranda's gestures were full of fastidious disdain, but Andy knew that if one truly looked when she was unaware -- an extremely rare occurrence since Miranda knew she was watched at all times -- one might see that her hand was small, rather delicate, more like a child's and less like a supermodel's. Never without a ring, except at home. Often caressing a necklace or a earring or a piece of fabric. Utterly forbidden. But wasn't it made of flesh and bones, just like Andy's own hand? Wouldn't it bleed if cut? Wouldn't she feel it if Andy held it now, whatever came after?

Andy placed the pen next to it and let the back of her fingers brush lightly, daringly against the large emerald ring. Miranda was stock-still. Andy couldn't catch her eyes because they were lowered. She was staring at the pen. Andy stood up. "I'll see you later then," she mumbled.
"Goodbye." Miranda picked up the pen and went back to her notepad.