This story is by Rob Gadtke and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon and editor-in-chief Alex Thompson, third-year law student at Iowa Law School, thought his heart might explode at his desk in the Law Review’s basement office. The tiny football shaped pill he carried in the front pocket of his jeans wasn’t doing its job. Or maybe it was, and he couldn’t feel it anymore.
He had mentioned the tolerance issue to the doctor at the emergency room, but she raised an eyebrow like he was a junkie. “No one dies of panic attacks,” she said walking away. He knew that was true, but people did die of heart attacks, which were caused by high blood pressure, which could be caused by panic attacks. So, he was counting heartbeats again, wondering when elevated became acute.
“You look terrible,” Matthew said sliding into the chair across from him.
Matthew had been Alex’s friend since the high school debate team. Eight years later, they were still on course for jobs with the Iowa Supreme Court.
“I confirmed it,” Alex said. “Six pages of Sarah’s law review article were plagiarized.”
“Wow,” Matthew shook his head. “Deadline’s tomorrow.”
Alex knew how he wanted to handle it. Send the Journal to the printer. Pretend he hadn’t noticed. The piece was already confirmed. It wasn’t like he had time to rewrite it correctly. He kicked himself for accepting Sarah’s article. Editing his girlfriend’s work was a mistake, but he never thought she would do this to him.
“I guess I’m forced to see Professor Wiggins,” Alex said.
“Great plan, Einstein. He’ll exploit her too.”
Alex bit his lip as he walked away. He knew asking Wiggins was a bad idea, but he had seen what gossip had done to others. Unless the problem went away quietly, people would brand him as complicit or incompetent. Either way, the Supreme Court wouldn’t touch him.
Later Thursday Night
Alex waited for Wiggins in the faculty parking lot, leaning against a nearly invisible black Tesla. Wiggins slithered over, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, looking like a character from a Dickens novel.
“Do you know the best part of owning a Tesla, Alex?” Wiggins asked. Alex shook his head. “Never feeling guilty.”
“I didn’t know you were capable.”
“Tisk-tisk, Alex,” Wiggins said. “Everyone feels guilty. It’s the why that matters. ‘Sometimes one must be cruel to be kind.’”
Alex hated Wiggins’s pseudo-intellectualism, the way he spoke with his head tilted up, his eyes looking down on you like a naughty child.
“What will it take for you to help Sarah?” Alex said.
Wiggins feigned a hand to his heart. “Your cynicism hurts, Alex. Everything I’ve done has been for you. Stay focused now. A clerkship is within reach.”
“So, you will help her then?”
“If she asks,” Wiggins said. “A person must choose their destiny, Alex. No one can choose it for them.”
Alex cursed Wiggins as he trudged home. The old man was playing games. Sarah would never sell her soul to him. And what was that nonsense about choosing a path? Nobody chooses a path. The path always chose you, Alex thought.
Even Later Thursday Night
Alex found Sarah sitting in an oversized chair in their apartment with her feet tucked under her. She was staining a textbook with a highlighter. He tiptoed over, trying to avoid the squeaky spots in the carpet.
“It’s fine,” Sarah said. “I gave her Tylenol an hour ago. She’s out cold.” She was their two-year-old daughter, Ellie, who had been battling a two-month cold. On Monday, she was scheduled to see a specialist at University Hospital.
Alex nodded, easing onto the couch beside her.
The walk had given him time to think. Why was he risking his future if Sarah hadn’t bothered to tell him? If she wanted to gamble on no one finding out, wasn’t that her decision? He did his best to hide his feelings, but his poker face wasn’t good.
“I knew you’d catch it, eventually,” Sarah said exhaling. “You always notice when something doesn’t fit.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to,” Sarah said tears welling in her eyes. “But I didn’t know how. It was supposed to be placeholder text. I pasted it the week Ellie didn’t sleep. I was so tired. By the time I remembered, I had already sworn it was my work.”
“Okay,” Alex said pinching the bridge of his nose.
“In the morning, I’ll tell Dean Steinberger,” she said.
“No. We’ll lose Ellie’s insurance.”
Sarah provided Ellie’s insurance because Alex lingered outside the jewelry story but never went in.
“It’s the only way,” Sarah said. “You need to stay clear.”
“No,” Alex said. He stood up, almost losing his balance, his heart pounding in his ears.
Sarah stood and cupped his face with her hands. “It’s not your fault, babe. You can still do amazing things for the people of Iowa.”
Looking at her then, he felt like he saw her for the first time in years. She was the warmest person he had ever known. Her voice carried a kind of patience that made those around her better people.
She leaned closer to him, their noses touching. “And hey,” she said holding his arms. “It’s not like I wanted to be a lawyer anyway.”
Later, Alex rocked alone in Ellie’s room, watching his daughter suck on a pacifier in her crib. There had to be a way to save them both, he thought. He just needed to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle.
At 3:00 p.m., Alex still didn’t have a plan. He had convinced Sarah not to confess – for now. But he didn’t have a solution that wouldn’t leave her dancing like a puppet for Wiggins.
He tied his running shoes and headed away from the school. He crossed a pedestrian bridge and followed an asphalt trail to an empty park. He stopped near a pond, put his hands on his knees, and screamed until his voice was hoarse.
Exhausted, he walked to a bench. An In-Memoriam inscription was etched into a bronze plate screwed to the backrest. It read: “Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else. – Mitch Albom”
Alex sat alone, thinking of all the things he had done trying to hold on to law school when the answer hit him. The way free of Wiggins was to let it go. To pass it on to Sarah. He checked his watch. If he hurried, he had just enough time to make it back to the Law Review to change the Journal before it went to print.
Alex wore faded blue jeans with a long sleeve black shirt, not bothering to impress anyone.
He sat alone in Dean Steinberger’s office, staring out the windows, watching undergraduates carry backpacks over their shoulders. He wondered who he would be when it was over. He had never been anything other than a future lawyer.
He watched Dean Steinberger, and Professor Wiggins take their places next to him, but he didn’t feel anything.
“I need your Student ID,” Dean Steinberger said.
Alex nodded, fishing it out of his front pocket and handing it over. The Journal had gone to press on schedule. But before hitting send, Alex had shredded all the printed copies of Sarah’s work and re-edited the electronic version, chopping sentences and deleting words. The plagiarized section became an unintelligible jumble. When he finished, he did the same to the other articles. It was a hack job never seen before at a top twenty law school, which drew the immediate attention he had hoped. With everyone gaping at him, no one thought about Sarah’s work. In the end, Wiggins tossed a few dirty cards he still held, mercifully ensuring there would be no redemption.
“But why?” Dean Steinberger said.
Alex shrugged, then spoke to Wiggins: “Everyone chooses their path. Isn’t that right, professor,” Alex said.
“Touché, Alex. Touché,” Wiggins said.
Dean Steinberger led him by the arm to the lobby. Over his shoulder, he heard Wiggins mutter: “And so I start again.”
Alex didn’t look back. Images of Sarah danced in his head. Her hugging her parents at graduation; her taking the oath at the Bar; her starting her first job. All free from Wiggins.
He pushed open the law school’s front doors, feeling the wind bite his face. He stood an inch taller now, breathing in through his nose. For the first time in as long as he could remember, it felt like he could breathe. It didn’t even occur to him to count his heartbeats.