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Necessary People
Author: Anna Pitoniak

Part One

 

 

Chapter One

 

i was nineteen years old the first time I saved Stella Bradley’s life.

One of the older boys who lived in a shabby off-campus house had managed to capture Stella’s attention. When Stella needed rescuing from these situations, from these men who couldn’t resist monopolizing her, she would signal to me. Tuck her hair behind her ear, tap a finger against her chin. But for the better part of an hour, she’d ignored me entirely.

Ascending the stairs, she caught my eye. He’s cute, right? her shrugging look said. This one is worth it. Earlier that year, Stella had declared that she was finished with men. Immaturity and frattish antics aside, the men at our college were simply boring, and Stella couldn’t stand that. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” she had said. “It’s just not worth it.”

“Totally,” I had replied. Which was a lie, and wasn’t. Stella’s intelligence often surprised me. Her categorical statements seemed silly but were in fact insightful. Are the men you meet when you’re eighteen really worth the effort? Well, I had no experience with boys, so what did I know? But I could also see the truth she was getting at.

See, this was why I loved Stella Bradley. There’s a lot of bullshit in life, and not many people who can cut through it.

“You’re sure you want to drive?” I had asked, on our way to the party.

“It’s freezing,” she had said, backing out of the lot near our dorm. “And anyway, I’m too hungover to drink tonight.” It was a cold night, a Saturday in the slump of February. She parked her SUV in the driveway outside the house.

Later that night, with Stella occupied, I went home alone. The snow made for a long and slippery walk, but I was warm in a plush down jacket with a fur-trimmed hood—a jacket Stella had lent to me a few months earlier and insisted I keep. I stamped the slush from my feet on the sodden entrance mat to our dorm and fitted the key into our door. Midnight was an oddly quiet hour. The partygoers were still absent, the conscientious students already asleep.

Over the years, I would grow used to this feeling. Empty bed, ticking clock: the chilly vacuum created by her absence. I was who I was because of her. I wanted the sight of her smile, the sound of her laughter, the warmth of her hand on my arm, the sense of her within easy reach. On quiet nights when I was alone and Stella was elsewhere, I wondered how pathetic this was. I mean, really: was it normal to think about another person so much?

But this night, this particularly cold and snowy February night, was only five months into our friendship. As the months turned into years, questions like that would lose their sharpness, and the answers would become irrelevant. What we had—eventually, I would see this—was nothing like a normal friendship.

Around 3 a.m., unable to sleep, I began to worry. Stella had been tired that day. She’d been planning to sleep in her own bed. She said that she had sex like men did, leaving afterward, refusing to spend the night. She had been sober when I left, and would have driven herself home. The boy, behind her, had bounded up the stairs two at a time. He had looked so pleased with himself. Too pleased.

“It’s me,” I said into the phone. “Again. Call me, okay? I’m worried.”

But my texts and calls went unanswered. Another hour passed before I started to panic.

Something was wrong.

 

 

It had been the last stop on my trip. A small New England college, second tier and expensively manicured, what I imagined a country club looked like. On that trip to tour colleges, certain differences stood out. At some schools, I could imagine seamlessly fitting in. The bigger schools, those with vast student bodies and ample scholarships for people like me, room for a democracy’s worth of differences.

This school wasn’t like that. The smaller the club, the harder it is to blend in—I’d learn this repeatedly in the years to come. I lingered at the back of the group. Then someone approached, a shadow blocking the April sunlight in my peripheral vision.

“Nice shoes.” She nudged her foot against mine. We were both wearing black Converses.

I turned and took her in. She was tall and blond and beautiful in a way that suggested glamour and globe-trotting, and radiated the possibilities of serious money. She pulled down her sunglasses, revealing cool blue eyes, and leaned closer. “I’m so bored I want to kill myself,” she said.

“Don’t do that,” I said. “You’ll never get the blood out of that white shirt.”

Her laugh was harsh but amused. “What’s your name? I’m Stella.”

“I’m Violet,” I said.

“Well, Violet, I’m afraid I have no choice.” With a sigh, she hung her sunglasses from her shirt. A white Oxford, top three buttons undone. The weight of the sunglasses tugged the fabric down, revealing an arc of lacy bra. “This is the only place I got in.”

“It’s a good school,” I said.

“It’s a good school for people like me,” she said.

“Which means?”

The tour group was moving on. We followed, slowly.

“Rich,” she said. Then shrugged. “And lazy.”

It was my turn to laugh. She smiled.

“Live your truth,” she said. “Isn’t that what the gurus say?”

“A quarter million bucks in tuition is a lot to pay for your truth.”

Stella laid a hand on my arm. “See that woman?” she said, indicating an older but similarly attractive woman at the front of the group. “That’s my mother. You know what she always says? You can’t put a price on respectability.”

“Honestly, I don’t know what that means,” I said.

Stella laughed again. “Me, neither. But she says it with conviction.”

The group was rapt as the tour guide described a stone gargoyle. But Stella was looking at me, squinting. The quality of her attention was at once sincere and ironic, unlike anything I’d experienced before. Keep talking, it said. We’re just getting started.

“So what’s your deal, Violet?” she said. “Are you going here, too?”

 

 

I could hear the thumping music from a hundred yards away. The windows were bright against the darkness. I told myself I was being paranoid. Stella was probably fine. But then the driveway came into view, and sure enough, her car wasn’t there.

The boy from earlier was in the living room, his shirt rumpled and eyes rimmed with red. The die-hard handful of remaining partyers didn’t notice me, or the blast of cold air from the open front door. The room was humid with whiskey and sweat.

“Hey,” I said, grabbing the boy’s arm. “Where did Stella go?”

He swayed as he turned toward me. “Who are you?”

“Her roommate. She never came home.”

“Dunno. She left a while ago.”

“How long? Like, minutes? Hours?”

“I told her to stay. But she was all, Ew, no. Your house is disgusting.” He laughed at his own impression. Another boy was passed out on the lumpy couch, and someone was drawing in Sharpie on his forehead. The boy started to turn away, but I grabbed his arm again.

“Hey,” I said. “Her car isn’t in the driveway.”

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