Read chapters 4 and 5 of Kathy Wang's new spy thriller Impostor Syndrome
In Kathy Wang's upcoming novel Impostor Syndrome, a Russian spy rises through the ranks of the tech industry, eventually landing the COO gig at Tangerine (a riff on Google), while one of her underlings discovers a security blip that hints at the nefarious connections at play. The book hits shelves May 25, but EW will be sharing the first seven chapters exclusively on our website over three installments. Below, read the second excerpt.
Everyone always agreed that it was very sad that Julia's parents were dead. The first time she mentioned it to Charlie he almost teared up: But that's awful / I just can't imagine / My mother is my rock—the latter of which, come to think of it, Julia really should have paid more attention to, as a harbinger of the sort of in-laws she'd have to manage down the line. The two magazine profiles Julia had allowed in the last year—both flattering, both conducted after she'd hired Candace Perry to manage her personal media with an iron fist—had each contained a paragraph dedicated to the fact that she was an orphan, raised by loving relatives (ha!). When pressed about her parents Julia would turn down her lips and drop her head.
It was so long ago, she would murmur. It was all so unclear.
Though Julia did remember her parents, recalled their details very well, actually. She'd been born in Makhalino, a rural town where the largest employer was a candy factory, which every afternoon belched odorless steam into a flat gray sky. Julia's mother, Nina, worked at the factory, and at one point, so had her father, Karl—though due to some earlier accident, of which no physical effect could be discerned, Karl no longer worked at the factory or at all. Instead, while Nina rose each morning and bicycled to her shift, Karl woke closer to noon and began his day with tea, performing a ritual where he poured boiling water into a mug containing the damp leaves from the evening before, viciously stabbing to release the last dregs of flavor. He then moved on to vodka. Karl's chief responsibilities were to purchase vegetables and dried fish and occasionally cigarettes from the mobile peddler; he frequently purchased poorly, diverting grocery funds into notebooks and cheap tool sets.
One winter morning when Julia was seven, Karl discovered he'd accidentally discarded his tea leaves the night before, and made an early transition to vodka. Once finished with lunch, he abruptly rose and, only slightly teetering, announced he would meet the peddler. After a hesitation Julia shouted after him that it was the wrong day; she risked this even though just weeks earlier, she had commented that his latest purchase, a black plastic digital wristwatch, was not worth the equivalent of a week's groceries, and had paid a steep price—she was tied with a rope to a pine tree and left outside, snow falling onto her hair and clothes, until Nina came home hours later. Seeing Julia, her mother had startled but continued to walk toward the house. And then, at the last minute, she returned to the tree and loosened the knots. "You have such little responsibility, all you have to do is not be stupid," Nina commented as she watched Julia frantically strip her sodden clothes. "You can't even manage that."
So when Karl ignored her shouting, Julia did not follow; she stood and watched as he wobbled and took a shortcut through a heavily wooded area and then passed out of sight. She was later told that somewhere along the way he fell through a patch of ice into a pond and froze to death. Afterward, Nina quit her job at the factory and refused to leave the house. She was only twenty-six and already a widow; that she was not the youngest or even the second-youngest widow in their community brought little comfort. As for Julia, her mourning was uncertain, uneven, her memories of Karl scattershot, like the rays of a fast-moving prism: his red wool sweater and the way the house would smell of animal when it was washed once a season; Karl declaring himself brilliant as he played both sides of a chessboard.
Nina cried and cried when Karl died and couldn't understand why Julia didn't. "But he was your father," she bayed, as if Julia needed reminding. Julia didn't understand why her mother sobbed so much: Nina had barely spoken to Karl when he was alive, and it often seemed as if she genuinely hated him, and wasn't Julia the most reliable to remark on such a thing, given that she was in the house all day? Yet Nina only grew more hysterical. A week after the body was found, she came to Julia's bed and pulled down the blanket. She lay next to Julia, almost an idyllic parent-child portrait, until Nina's hand moved to Julia's elbow and pinched. When Julia didn't react, she did it again, harder, until Julia yelped. "So you can cry," Nina said. She sat and covered her mouth. "My God, what's wrong with you?" She began to weep and ran from the room. The next morning, when Julia reached for her mug, she saw her mother stare at the bruise on her lower arm, and went into her room and put on a sweater.
They moved out of the house and to Mytishchi, where they temporarily settled with Nina's parents. Julia's grandmother Zora was short and thickset and typical of the women of her generation in that her days consisted of brief breaks between cooking and cleaning—if not grocery shopping or preparing a meal, she could be found scrubbing the Khrushchyovka apartment with great fanaticism. Zora believed women should be quiet and docile, with herself as the sole exception, and had married smartly, choosing a taciturn security guard. When he returned home from work each night, Nina's father, Anatoly, liked to take his dinner on a tray and sit in front of the television, where he would remain for the rest of the evening.
Julia could feel her grandmother's eyes upon her as she moved through the apartment. "She's just like her father," Zora remarking, after Julia switched channels on the yellow Yunost. "Only cares about herself, no matter that this show is our favorite." Zora had not approved of Karl; he was the root cause, she believed, of all of Nina's miseries. And how unfortunate, Zora continued, that out of tragedy her daughter had finally been freed from her life's worst decision, only to be still so encumbered...
Besides Julia, Nina had other troubles. No money. No job. A husband or boyfriend could possibly help, but here, too, there was a worrisome lack of progress. Her mother's problems were no secret to Julia, and though she didn't understand how they might be resolved, she was old enough to intuit that her presence, or possibly lack thereof, played an integral role. At night, Julia heard the voices:
"You can start over. You are still young. There are places," Zora urging.
"I could never!" Nina cried. Over the years, Julia would recall this exact line. I could never. The fervor with which her mother had said and believed. How easily anyone could set aside their convictions, given the right levers.
It began with a trial. One little-known fact about the institutes was that some parents used them as emergency reprieve—maybe they worked long hours, or had to go away for school, or simply didn't have enough money. This was how Nina rationalized it, Julia knew. That the fact she could bear to leave her own child must mean it was a major emergency indeed.
"Mother's just taking you here so she can work," Nina said that first morning as they entered, even though she had no job, at least not yet. Announcing such in a loud voice, as if afraid Julia might contradict her otherwise. "Here are your food and clothes. I'll be back on Friday."
Still stunned, Julia didn't respond. The worker who greeted them motioned for Julia to follow her to a room filled with rows of elevated mattresses, and placed her bag on a table in between two cots next to the wall. "You'll share this space with Raisa," the woman said.
A girl slightly older than Julia lay prostrate on the other cot. At the sound of her name, she turned.
"Raisa," the woman said. "Be nice."
Raisa propped herself up on an elbow and smiled. Her eyelashes were so light as to be nearly transparent, and her teeth were yellow and uneven. She had an appealing expression, like that of a friendly dog. She pointed to Julia's bag.
"You want me to move it?" Julia sat on what she assumed to be her own bed, across from Raisa. Raisa shook her head and made a sweeping motion with her hand that Julia interpreted as a gesture of welcome.
This isn't so bad, Julia thought. At least here there wouldn't be the constant looming specter of her grandmother, lurching about with her ancient duster, glaring after Julia as if she were a fleck of shit that had escaped from the toilet. She could stay until Friday and then go home, and by then absence should have done its work in making Nina's heart grow fonder.
She opened her bag and removed one of Nina's lunches, braised cabbage with a slice of rye, wrapped in wax paper. On impulse, she asked, "You want?"
"Thank you very much." Raisa's voice was high and tinny. She rose and Julia saw she wore a blue smock down to her ankles. Then, at a speed that inspired some concern over the institute's meal portions, Raisa began to eat. As she watched, Julia became aware of a boy observing them from farther down the wall. Go ahead and stare, she thought. You're not getting any. She had only one lunch per day, and already she'd given today's to Raisa, though she wasn't hungry anyway, out of nerves.
Raisa ate neatly and completely, in a manner of which Julia's grandmother would have approved, and brushed off the crumbs and then pressed the wax paper into a square. She smiled, and Julia prepared to receive some thanks or a compliment—Nina was no chef, but Julia supposed compared to a government institution's her mother's food might seem gourmet—when Raisa widened her mouth to a round O. Still keeping eye contact, she jammed a finger down her throat. As she retched, the regurgitated bread and cabbage spilled onto her smock and bed. She then began to eat again.
"She's doing it to taste the sweetness," the boy commented. Julia had earlier vowed to ignore him, to establish her own social superiority, but given current events she hastily abandoned this stance. Up close she could see he used to have a cleft lip: the bottom half of his nose was flattened, as if the air had been let out of his nostrils. Seeing her look, he blushed and repeated himself. "She does it sometimes. She likes to eat candy, but we never have it. So she does that instead. I'm Misha."
"Julia." She was fascinated by his lip and didn't bother to hide her staring. It was as if by entering the institute she had automatically shed some outer layer of civility. "Is this where we sleep?" The thought was dawning that the bed by Raisa had been available for a reason.
"Yes. And I won't switch with you. Besides, you look big," he added, eyeing her appraisingly. "You can manage Raisa."
Julia knew she should ask, but at the moment couldn't bear hearing what size had to do with her situation. "I don't care," she said airily. "I'm used to it."
"She also does it with poop," Misha offered. "She eats it?"
"No. She shits and then wipes. Mostly on the walls, though she will also do it on beds. Sometimes other people, if she can catch them. We have not been able to predict when or why. Sometimes she is having a good day, and then still does it."
"I don't believe you."
Misha shrugged. "Believe what you want." On Wednesday, Julia prepared herself for the possibility that Nina might not return. It would be fine, she thought. Wasn't she adaptable? And it wasn't as if her life was so great: her father dead, her mother sobbing in bed each night, tearing out her own hair in clumps. By Friday, Julia was glancing at the clock every few minutes, her nails bitten to the pink, her stomach roiling each time there was a noise at the front entrance.
Nina came back.
At home, Julia concentrated on being personable. She said thank you when Zora announced dinner, and preemptively set the table; she dusted the apartment as ostentatiously as she dared, with a wad of napkins she'd fashioned into a blunt fan. The night of her return she went to the television hutch, where, after some effort, she pulled out a cheap plastic chess set and arranged the board, all the pieces in their starting position, by her mother's cot. She hoped the sight might inspire some nostalgia for the old house in Makhalino, Nina's life with Karl, and by extension, Julia. But her mother passed the set without comment. And the same problems remained.
No job. No money. No man.
On Monday, Nina returned her to the institute. This time Julia didn't offer Raisa any of her food. During a lull in activity, she snuck to the bathroom, where she'd stowed her bag behind the metal trash bin. It was only when she was in a stall with the door locked that she opened the sack and counted the wrapped meals inside.
Last week, there had been five. Now Julia counted three.
On Tuesday, Julia went to the worker Sophia, the one who wore a strong vanilla perfume, whom Julia believed to be in charge. She asked if Sophia might help her call Nina.
"What for?" Sophia asked. Pretty Sophia, with her singsong voice and clear complexion and plaited yellow hair. Her employment at the institute—where the rest of the helpers notched between ancient and miserable—was the subject of much debate among the children, the theories ranging from altruism to murder. "I want to ask what time she plans to arrive. On Friday."
"Huh," said Sophia as she used a knife to slice open a box containing donations from overseas. "She didn't say anything when she brought you," she added as she unearthed a set of soft baby slippers, light beige with a delicate lace trim. "Your mother is busy, you know? Best not to bother her."
Julia was distracted by the slippers, which were new with tags attached, in contrast to the rest of the clothes, which were mostly faded and featured the logos of out-of-date sporting competitions. Who had donated the slippers? What kind of life did some little girl have, that she could just give up such shoes? Julia was plotting how she might distract Sophia so she could stow them in her shirt when Sophia dropped them into a bag to be resold and they disappeared.
Julia blinked. "If I don't bother my mother, you think she can find a job?"
Sophia ceased her sorting. "She is not working?" she asked, still not looking at Julia.
"Does she have a man?"
"No. Well, perhaps now. Maybe a job, too."
"Huh," Sophia said again. Another pause, and she returned to her excavation. "Well, it is always best to think positively. Someone once told me our country's a mess because we are negative thinkers. So now I always try to believe good things will happen."
Over the following days, Julia tried to live by this counsel. On Wednesday, ignoring her stomach's moans, she forced herself to offer her last piece of rye to Misha, who had shown her the hiding place in the bathroom. To make a true show to the universe that she believed she would soon return home, where there was always at least bread on the table.
On Thursday, Julia voluntarily helped clean Raisa's latest subversion, fist-sized balls Raisa had crafted out of her own corn-tinged shit, which she had then smashed on half of the blankets in the sleeping room. Standing at the sink next to Sophia, who'd kindly procured for her a pair of gloves, Julia scrubbed and scrubbed and then hung the blankets to dry. As the hours passed, the dead-fishy odor was slowly swallowed by the industrial scent of patchouli; the sun through the windows was cozy, and a victorious feeling began to grow, buttressed from the approval she sensed from Sophia. She had done it, Julia thought. She had willed a positive event into existence.
And then Friday came, and Nina didn't come back.
Julia was in shock, the first few weeks. She lay fetal, drifting through her memories, where her grandmother's apartment now hovered as an oasis. Even the butt-freezing toilet, located in an unheated stall outside the front door, elicited tears; the thought of Nina's stew—a thin combination of carrots, duck, celery, and old bread of which Julia was never awarded any of the meat—brought on a full crying jag. Raisa, sensing the extension in Julia's residency, tried to strangle her the following Saturday—but finally let go when Julia kicked, hard, in between her legs.
I don't belong here, Julia thought. I have to get out.
There were only a few routes she knew of. Adoption, but from what she'd heard that was rare; you could pray and pray to land a rich Western couple, but chances were you'd get a local farming family instead, the sort desirous of free labor and repressed enough that the father crept into your room at night. Supposedly the state occasionally took some children, but that was even rarer—and Julia would rather bet on a pair of local bumpkins than some government agency.
Even though it meant staying at the institute, it was the last option, Julia would come to believe, that offered the best odds for survival: to be identified as an "exception," the state's designation for those wards who possessed some combination of intelligence or athleticism or looks. Exceptions had access to better food and a doctor's visit each year; were officially entitled to a primary and secondary education, academic materials and textbooks.
The problem: How to be selected? She'd first learned of the classification via Misha, who, if not exactly her friend by now, was at least whatever it was that passed for acquaintances among children. "You could try and convince the directors you are qualified," he said, with the easy confidence of a casino boss wishing good luck to a bettor.
In the end, it was the phone that saved her.
The institute had one telephone, a beige handset in the administrative office. As was the rule with all electronics, the phone was off-limits, though it was little policed, because who were the children going to call? But still Julia found herself drawn to the machine, its thin yet unassailable connection to the outside world. When the weather was bad or Misha inexplicably unhappy or she herself depressed, Julia liked to linger near the office and eavesdrop. I am a spy, she told herself. I am gathering secrets.
One morning, Julia watched as Maria, the beak-nosed matriarch whom by now she'd identified as the true director of the institute, attempted to call her mother. Maria spent little time with her charges, instead marching about the building, engaged in mysterious tasks—though she did pass through, greeting each child by name, when there were visiting church groups or clusters of Americans. Julia did not consider Maria a hypocrite because she did not pretend to be soft, merely efficient.
Maria dialed and after a few seconds glared at the keypad in frustration. She dialed again and pressed the phone to her ear and swore.
Julia decided to chance it. "It's 459–8555," she called out. "Not 459–8755." Maria swiveled her head like an owl tracking prey. "What?" "You have the fifth digit wrong."
"Do you dare spy on me?"
Maria's eyes were narrow and her nostrils were beginning to flare; Julia was frightened but knew she'd gone too far not to continue. "No. I'm just telling you."
"How did you know the number I wanted?"
"You always call your mother at this time. You greet her, and ask about her health and what she has eaten so far."
"And how did you know about the wrong digits?"
"You called yesterday. I could tell what the numbers were by where you placed your hand." And then Julia pressed her own palm against her forehead, as if working to suppress some constantly surging genius. Julia had seen Maria write the number on a floral notepad months earlier, and had promptly stolen the top pages, which she stored along with a handful of millefiori glass beads in the pencil box in which she kept her most treasured possessions. "I've always been good at recalling numbers, long strings of them." Also a lie, or at least, untested.
Maria set down the phone. She left the room and for a moment Julia wondered if she might return with the wooden back scratcher used to mete out beatings. But instead she held a folder. "You are not educated," Maria said, reading from it, and Julia knew this must be her file.
"Yes I am. I went to school." She did not mention it had been for two hours a week, and run by a demented man-child whose parents had bribed local officials for the position. "I can write, too."
"Any other skills?" Maria looked up. "Do not lie."
Julia had just been debating which special talent to fabricate. Quick, she thought. Quick! Yes, Maria was authoritative and frightening, but she also could not recall a basic phone number; would she test Julia? Or accept her statement as fact, because at a base level most humans were uncaring and lazy...
"I'm excellent at chess." The director returned to the folder. "Interesting," she murmured, a finger to her lips. "A successful application could bring an extra two thousand a month . . . and the father's background could easily be revised..."
And so Julia's first great piece of luck: she won an exception designation. It was not the last time she would use this trick of rote memorization to affect some loftier genius—years later she would wonder how many of the "brilliant" executives she met were truly so, versus simply hardworking. When after graduation Leo asked her to meet, she had thought here was her second good fortune; she'd vowed then she would do whatever he wanted, that she'd work tirelessly to exceed whatever it was he asked. Julia knew it was important to be useful. To always be useful.
"We want to attack Tangerine," said Leo.
"What?" Julia said, even though she'd heard clearly. She was in her office after a long afternoon with advertisers—had loosened her pump off her right foot and was massaging her heel when Leo called. "The SPB is in the early stages of planning an intrusion," Leo repeated. "Are you certain you're clear?"
He meant was she private, unmonitored. "Yes." In an ironic turn, her Tangerine office was often the safest place to speak, as it was scanned for bugs twice a week by internal security.
"It should be simple," Leo went on. As usual with their Free-Talk calls, his voice was breezy, almost loud, and Julia pressed the phone against her ear. "We've identified a vulnerability in the back end of your email servers. We need you to download the source code so we can complete the intrusion."
A roiling heat rose and burred itself in her side. The Tangerine email service, unimaginatively called Tangerine Mail, was a product Julia had personally redesigned and grown to a billion users. "Why?"
"Why not? We'd be able to access the emails of your users en masse. Why wouldn't we take advantage?"
"Haven't I done enough?" Julia demanded, with the feeling that had been creeping in as of late, that she was under-appreciated. That she'd finally managed the FreeTalk merge had been received with sparse congratulatory words, whereas she thought forcing a $9 billion start-up to cede user data was considerably more impressive than, say, some slut blackmailing a doddering old technician for the schematics of a power plant. And that wasn't even taking into account the recent headache with Sean Dara, who had flamboyantly quit last week, leaving behind $40 million in stock; afterward publishing a blog post in which he railed against Tangerine, making dark accusations about the company's plans to mine private messages for data (true). Julia wasn't so upset about his call to arms to delete Tangerine—people were always trying to marshal up for this, with negligible results. What Julia really resented was that Sean had personally named her in the post, calling her a liar and deceitful, both characteristics she worked hard to avoid association with, as they were suicide for any powerful woman in America.
Over the phone there was the rustling of paper. "Please respond this week with an estimate," Leo said primly. "As to when you can procure the code."
"I'll be blamed when the attack is discovered," she warned. "The product is associated with me."
"Why does it have to be discovered at all?"
"Because I can't cover our entire security organization. We have teams of engineers scanning the system's integrity. I'll be lucky to survive a week before the attack's discovered. And then the other executives will call for my head."
"Ah." Leo sounded unconcerned.
She pressed the nib of her pen against her notebook. "So I'm just to be sacrificed?"
"You will survive. It is expected that occasionally you may take hits to your persona."
Julia didn't like this at all. For weeks she'd been transferring server data—the most recent being all searches originating from Sydney during a twelve-hour period. She followed the standard process each time, signing in with her User 555 credentials, messaging a FreeTalk account she knew only as HELPER once the transfer was complete. Afterward driving to the designated drop point, this last instance a park bathroom in Woodside, where she left the USB drive in a zipped plastic bag in the trash.
"You can't keep pushing," she warned. "You've already asked for dozens of names, and then the server downloads, and now this. If you keep escalating, I could be caught. Do you understand the potential damage if the public learns Tangerine Mail was compromised? That their affairs, emails to friends, applications for jobs were exposed? It would endanger my position. It would risk my work!"
"What did you say your work was?" Leo asked. She threw her pen against the wall.
After they hung up, Julia sat in her office, rage ballooning. She checked her screen: sixty-five new messages in the last half hour, all on Tangerine Mail. Her success with relaunching the product was why she'd finally been named COO; its $10 billion in annual revenue served as the moat her competition found impossible to penetrate, capitalist politics a bureaucratic dinosaur like Leo couldn't possibly understand.
She went to the employee database. After a second she found the phone number of Jon Fall, her VP of engineering. In person he was quiet—often during her staff meetings he would not speak at all, except to answer a direct question.
Jon was there in minutes. Julia was massaging her foot again when he arrived; something else she hated, how the executive offices had glass walls, a dopey literal nod to "transparency." He knocked and she motioned for him to enter. Average height, green eyes. Younger than her by a few years. Not gorgeous but not unattractive, the sort of man a clever plain girl would work hard to lock down.
"There's going to be an attack on our network," she said. Jon wasn't the sort for small talk. "Targeting Tangerine Mail."
He looked thoughtful. "A test?"
"No. A real attempt. We were informed by some government sources." Not technically a lie.
"I'm not certain. But they've identified a zero-day exploit in our code. Can you find it?"
As she waited, Julia yanked at the hem of her dress. Jon was taking too long, to the point where her impatience was near overflow—
"Yes," Jon said. "I'm sure. But I'll need some time."
She relaxed. "I'll also want to shore up our defenses. Install some employee safeguards, especially for those with developer access. All of their emails, browsing, needs to be vetted."
"Do we publicize? Or do it quietly?"
"No." This was important. "Keep it quiet. Do it internally, with a small team."
"Very good," she said. Impressed by his confidence, pleased because she knew it came from ability and not showmanship. He was actually handsome, she thought. Aquiline nose, full lips, hair not unlike Charlie's, down to a stray kiss curl on the left side. "Keep me informed. Only in person, not email." Jon nodded.
There was a chance Leo would find out, Julia knew. He might discover she'd defied him, and then what would he do? But she couldn't continue to simply take his orders; not when the intent was to cripple something she'd built. How many hours of her life had been spent testing, tweaking Tangerine Mail? She remembered the party they'd thrown when the product finally hit its first one hundred million users—and then a billion, and by the end of the year it was on track to hit two billion. Julia was expecting another party for that milestone: a bigger one, and a nice stock award, too.
After Jon left, she doodled a series of circles into her notebook. She thought again of his face, how much she liked it. Usually when Julia was drawn to a man she could easily shake off the attraction; it was like porn in that when it disappeared from your screen, the people ceased to exist. Yet there was something about Jon that tugged. It was the way he held himself, how his body had an assurance of gentleness.
He reminded her of Misha.
Toward the end Misha had been her best friend at the institute, not that she'd ever told him. Misha, who'd somehow learned that most who aged out of the institute ended up homeless, was obsessed with housekeeping and order. "You have to have discipline," he'd lectured once, after they'd found a stash of chocolate bars at the bottom of a donation bin, both of them going silent at the sight of the bulk ten-pack like Galahad before the Holy Grail. They'd hid their candy in the usual place in the bathroom, and while Julia had gobbled hers within a week, Misha made his last, maintaining a careful inventory down to the fraction of the bars remaining. "You have to learn how to preserve what you have, work hard. Like migrants, do you understand how hard they work?" And then, with a sigh, passing her one of his bars of milk chocolate.
Julia knew she could hire an investigator to find Misha, or some of his history, but she never had. Sometimes she thought if she knew too much of him, her heart would break.
Her stomach hurt. When she descended into these spirals her stress spiked; she rocked in her chair and concentrated on breathing. Placed her open hand on the throbbing of her stomach, as she used to when Raisa kicked her, to manage the pain.
She spread her fingers and summoned their heat. Pressed her hand in harder.
The baby kicked back.
Here was the rule at Tangerine: You don't mess with the individual.
Especially the important individual.
Individuals with influence, individuals with money, or God forbid, individuals with that ultimate power, both online and in physical life: celebrity.
Better to expose the Social Security numbers of 300 million than snoop through the messages of a model/photographer/influencer; better to store a billion passwords in plain text than "mistakenly" ban the account of a white supremacist. Better not to be Cameron Ekstrom. And thus when the corporate voice of Tangerine spoke, there was an emphasis on the individual—we care about our users, Pierre saying, that being you—we would never violate our users' rights, because we love you. Occasionally, yes, mistakes were made, terabytes of data exposed—but it wasn't personal, it wasn't that Tangerine was after you as a person, and probably no one would see or care anyway, which was why you never bothered to change your password or check your credit report. Tangerine would never deliberately share your secrets, and truly, you understood this, you knew it deep in your soul, which was why you spent so much time with it each day.
And yet, these had been the last searches by User 555 on God Mode:
- The current U.S. secretary of defense
- A senator from Delaware, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee
- The chairman of the Chemistry Department at Caltech
- The wife of the CEO of Lockheed Martin
- Two members of the Apple board of directors
- A Stanford professor
- A former undersecretary in the Obama administration
As well as a few other names Alice hadn't recognized. She could have looked them up, but by then was freaked out; she no longer wished to learn the identity of User 555, and was instead paranoid that User 555 might somehow learn about her. Back home, opening her laptop halfway, she had pressed the power key until the screen went black. And had not logged in to God Mode again.
It wasn't as if she weren't curious, Alice thought as she drove— it was Sunday morning, the only time she took the 101, because traffic was light—and in the past weeks she had indeed found herself tempted. When her mother phoned, announcing yet another twenty-something cousin's engagement, the nuptials planned for the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay; her last meeting with Tara, in which Alice's lack of "human" initiative had once again been reviewed. If she were confident of safe access to God Mode, Alice might have already examined the inner lives of Tara Lopez and Ginny Leo, Stanford graduate and bride-to-be; it was so much easier not to be jealous or angry when you knew what people wrote and searched.
She exited the freeway. Her parents still lived in the same townhome in which she'd grown up, and each of the curves, stoplights, and Mexican and Indian grocers along the way was as familiar as water. She parked at the curb and entered the house to find her father watching the news. Lincoln was usually watching TV; it was like white noise, but for his waking hours.
"Where's Mom?" Alice asked. As with the rest of the house, the living room was barely altered from her childhood. The same brown thatched couch and chair, the black plastic cat clock on the wall, where the eyes rolled and the curved tail swung every hour.
"Outside," Lincoln answered. He smiled at her and then made a pushing motion—You're in front of the TV.
Alice went out back, to the small patch of green buttressed on the other end by their carport. The garden was a rainbow: red tomatoes, a fig tree, Chinese pumpkin plants, multiple flowers that June nurtured but simultaneously considered an indulgence, because too many attracted wasps and bees.
"I thought after you retired, you guys would leave the house more," Alice said, pausing to stroke the figs. She was interested in the fruit but kept quiet, because she knew if she said anything June would immediately begin to harvest, shoving upon her an entire box.
"We were never in the house before," June said, not bothering to turn. She carefully placed a net over the kumquat tree, a low-grade weapon in her ongoing war against squirrels and birds. "Now we don't work, we stay in." She stood and shook the dirt from her hands. "Besides, we go out now, don't we?"
They went to Alice's Honda, each carrying a large cooler. June had started selling her homemade noodles at the Mountain View Farmers' Market ostensibly to make money, but after everything her mother spent on ingredients and the modest fee for the market, Alice wondered if she took any profit at all. June made liang pi, a cold flat noodle with cucumbers, minced garlic, chili oil, and vinegar. The dish was a popular street food in China, and Alice still had memories of eating it at her grandmother's, the old woman negotiating a refill just as soon as Alice choked down another bite of stewed eggplant. June made the noodles using the traditional, more meticulous method, kneading flour and water and then rinsing the dough in a bowl of water until the water was heavy with starch. She then removed the dough and let the water sit until the next morning, when she settled the remaining paste into pans. June charged five dollars per serving, which Alice suspected brought her near break-even, though Alice knew June's reluctance to price higher wasn't born from some greater altruism but rather a conviction that big margins were for those who spoke good English— those Americans with smooth words and stylish packaging.
They weren't officially allowed to start selling until ten a.m., so after they unpacked, June went to a produce stall while Alice dragged two canvas folding chairs from the trunk. She heard June cackling as she inspected a pod of French peas; she already knew her mother wouldn't buy any, as she was suspicious of vegetables that didn't need to be cooked. Plus they had an Ethiopian neighbor, Zeni, with whom June traded alteration services for vegetables from her garden.
Alice sank into the chair. It was unsupportive but wholly pleasurable, like a waterbed at a sleepover. She pitched back and shut her eyes. Last night Cheri had returned home at three a.m. after some undoubtedly lavish party. She'd stumbled about the kitchen, from which there emerged the sound of a pan being yanked from other pans, eggs cracking, the kettle hissing—all indicators she was making ramen, likely using one of the Neoguris Alice purchased from the Korean market. Awakened by the noise, Alice had rolled onto her side, pressing her ear to the bed. Eventually she'd been forced to paw through her dresser for her silicone earplugs, which she ripped in half to lengthen the life of the pack ($8 at CVS). In the morning she found a pot in the sink, red soup scum on its sides; the door to Jimmy's former office closed, Cheri inside snoring delicately.
Alice was dreaming now. She was at a party. A civilized one: low music, cheese on platters. A man took the empty seat next to her. He was Chinese and earnest and clear-skinned.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm embarrassed. I think I love you."
There was noise coming from the outside. She tried to block it out, hang on to the dregs. This could be her real life, she thought, if she could just stay in the mist, it was all so nice—
"Hello, hello!" Her mother stood before her. "What are you doing? You sleeping?"
As Alice struggled to rise, she could see June's expression downgrade from curiosity to a mild disapproval. "I'm only resting." She swatted away a fly. "Has it started?"
"No. It is nine fifty." June's hair fell evenly over both sides of her face like the curtain on a short window. It was newly cut, and lay in blunt layers at the neck. Zeni's work, Alice suspected.
Alice clasped her hands behind her head. "If we have ten more minutes, I'm going to sleep."
June eyed her. "You are not getting enough rest. Why do you come? I don't need you."
"I came to help."
"But you look like a slug. If you want to nap, maybe you can move by the sidewalk. In the shade, so you do not get hot. Really, I do not need help. How long did I manage the cleaners? Almost twenty years!"
Alice stood with a groan. It hurt her feelings that June said she didn't need her, though she suspected it might be true. Sometimes she thought her presence in the booth actually hindered June's success, as shoppers crowded around and made mention of China, Japan, the Orient, do you know Jocelyn Liu, another Chinese lady who makes the most darling potstickers? Do you make potstickers? Are these organic? After they left, Alice often had the feeling she hadn't been enough—nice enough, thankful enough—reassuring such shoppers that they were multicultural, that they were in fact doing a very good thing by purchasing the noodles her mother spent days assembling and charged five dollars for.
"I'm your only child. I thought you'd want to spend time together."
June regarded her flatly. "What do you think of the noodles today. Good?"
"Yes. Very good."
June sniffed the air. "There's something strange about the texture. Maybe I didn't wait long enough for it to settle. Your father, you think he is so quiet, but when it is him and I alone, he is always talking, distracting. Talk, talk, talk."
"You can tell him to call me at work."
"No! Tangerine is not paying you to do this! You must concentrate!"
"Okay," Alice said quickly, though June still looked agitated. Alice wondered if she still allowed her mother any form of face—if Tangerine was her last bastion of accomplishment, given that for all of June and Lincoln's hard work Alice was thirty-five, not thin, and still single. The last point being one in which she'd unfortunately misled them both, an omission that began from being too traumatized to discuss the breakup, but which over the following months had assumed a life of its own, one where she began to conjure all sorts of half-truths and full-out lies about her and Jimmy, including the very real event of his moving to Seattle, but also turning their relationship into a long-distance arrangement, from which she hoped to eventually execute some sort of soft landing. Only to be discovered when Jimmy abruptly changed his relationship status on Tangerine to Single, provoking the curiosity of one Cindy Leo, June's older sister, who managed an active Tangerine presence for her real estate business in Alhambra.
She had to keep her job at Tangerine, Alice thought. She needed to stay the hell away from User 555 and God Mode.
A bell clanged; the market had begun. Alice stood and helped June arrange noodles into the plastic sauce cups they used for samples.
A mother and her toddler approached. "Are these spicy?" the woman asked. Her son wore a hat with a propeller on it, like Dennis the Menace.
"A little bit," Alice said. "I don't know if it's best for kids." Although she had eaten far spicier in her grandmother's kitchen.
"I want it!" the boy shouted.
"No, no," the mother said, directing a glare at Alice, as if she were to blame for both selling a spicy food and then declaring it to be so in front of children. "They are spicy. You don't like spice. Hot. Hot. HOT!"
"But I want the noodles."
"Now, Oliver," the woman said, kneeling. "What did we say about being polite?"
"Give me the food!"
"Fine." The woman grabbed a handful of samples. "I'll rinse these at the fountain." June smiled at them as they left, as if she thought they might return.
Alice watched the crowd. The market's traffic was unpredictable in that sometimes the walkways were packed, strollers wielded like battering rams; other times it was calm, like now. She would sometimes encounter former classmates from Magdalena High, now married with kids, living in their parents' old houses or the houses their parents had helped purchase for them. They rarely recognized her, and when they did, were overly cordial.
Alice was about to sneak away for some empanadas when a couple strolled near. They were sampling the cherry tomatoes from the booth across the walkway, but the woman had glanced over, and Alice recognized the trapped interest exhibited by certain shoppers when they accidentally locked eyes with her or June. They didn't want to visit but, worried about being perceived as racist, usually did; they rarely bought noodles, though the samples were always
proclaimed delicious. The woman, who wore a light yellow sundress and golden sandals, held hands with a man who still faced the produce. He wore a plaid shirt and his brown hair was long and curling against his neck. Alice's breath caught and she thought that it couldn't be him, likely it was just someone similar. It was another person. A stranger. It wasn't.
He turned, and Alice knew that it was.
It had happened when she was eight. Their last Cantonese nanny had just abruptly departed; unable to secure alternate after-school care, June compromised by leaving the cleaners each afternoon to retrieve Alice from Oak Elementary, parking the old Chrysler along the curb. Afterward they returned to the cleaners, where Alice was installed inside in the back. She was never allowed near the equipment, and had been given strict instructions not to touch anything: the clothes, the machines, and especially the solvents. "Your hands will fall off" was June's warning, and while this was before June and Lincoln's own cancer diagnoses—and though at the age of eight Alice was already beginning to suspect that her parents lied, that in fact they lied often—the threat was still menacing. To supplement Alice's homework, June took her to the library on weekends, where they checked out stacks of books. These were carefully laid on top of a blanket in the back room of the cleaners, next to a table where Alice ate.
One afternoon, when they arrived at the store, June presented to Alice a puzzle still in shrink wrap.
"One thousand pieces?" Alice asked in alarm.
"Yes, you can do it for a long time." When Alice got new clothes, they were always at least a size or two larger.
Alice inspected the box, slowly reading. "World War Two planes?"
"It was on the sale table," June said. "Barnes & Noble." Alice was piecing together the left wing of the Messerschmitt when the door chimed. She looked at the clock, which read 6:30 p.m., exactly closing. Most of the other cleaners in the area shut at 6:00 p.m.: June and Lincoln stayed open the extra half hour for the office crowd.
"Drop off," Alice heard June confirm, in her accented English. She could tell her mother wanted a quick transaction; no query about alterations or shoe shine.
"Open the register." The voice was young and male.
"What?" June replied. Though Alice sensed danger, at this point her alarm was mild: the faint scream of a fire engine as it sped down a faraway road. Her chief concern was that they'd be late returning home, which might result in her bath being taken away. Alice liked baths. She had a trick of running a tiny stream of hot water so the temperature remained constant; it was just quiet enough that her parents couldn't hear and scold her for wasting water.
"Don't you fucking understand English? Open the register and hand over the cash."
And then another voice: "Lie on the ground."
For some reason, it was the second voice that carried with it an escalation of danger. Alice clutched the puzzle piece in her hand; suddenly she had trouble breathing.
She recognized the sound of the register opening. Then the murmuring of voices: "That's all? Forty?"
"My husband," June replied nervously. "My husband, he take the rest."
This was true. Throughout the day June and Lincoln stowed cash in a green pleather envelope kept hidden in the back behind the microwave. After June returned from school with Alice, Lincoln would depart for the bank with the envelope, leaving behind only small bills for making change.
"Are you..." June said, cutting through the quiet, "are you going to sexually harass me?"
Later, when she was older and understood its meaning, this was always the memory Alice would work to suppress most: her mother's thick accent, how it was obvious June had not known what harassment meant but rather was repeating a known action, like dialing 911. Each week when they visited the library her mother would borrow movies—it was only after college that Alice began to question June's selections, which often had a thrilling, sexual theme. What would it be like, Alice thought, if you were a woman in a foreign country, and while the Chinese video rental shop on Union Street did have a section cordoned off, only men were ever seen browsing its shelves, their faces hidden behind its curtain? So instead June resorted to the library and its R-rated titles. The latest pick, one where a boss stalked his direct report, had been watched by the whole family, Alice on the carpet, sorting beads. She'd been sent to bed right as the boss began to menace his second target: "He's sexually harassing me," the girl complained to her roommate. Despite her fright there was a heavy undertone of musk: the dim lighting, the sinister yet sensual score, the way the camera lingered on the girl's chest, heaving in a strapless gingham dress.
But in this moment Alice knew her mother didn't understand the meaning of the words; she instinctively grasped that they were uttered from terror, a blunder constructed from fright.
"Sexually harass—what the fuck? Like I'd enjoy that," one said, and they both laughed.
"I will give you my bracelet—" June then tried, referring to her jade bangle, which she always wore. Alice loved the bangle, which was bright green and whorled with flecks of cream. She was already mourning its loss when suddenly there came a cry, a deep, guttural noise of pain. Alice strained, as if the noise might repeat itself—she thought it'd been female, but she could not recall ever hearing such a sound from June.
"Shit," said the first voice, now higher. "Why'd you do that?" "I don't know. I hate how they talk. Fucking gooks."
"She's not moving."
"It wasn't that bad. She's faking, right? Whatever, f--k it, let's go."
After they left, the store was silent. Alice forced herself to count to twenty. She recalled a character from one of her books, a girl detective, having done the same. "Mama?" she then called. She felt a dampness on her pants and thought perhaps she'd been murdered. But then she touched the spot and knew she had wet herself; she did not feel shame but rather only fear that June would be disappointed, and then she remembered June.
When she ran out, her mother was on the floor. Her mouth and the side of her face were a smear of blood.
Alice thought she was dead. Oddly, she did not scream or cry but instead moved to action, as June had always taught. She began to drag the heavy stool from the back, to reach the telephone on the high counter.
"Don't. Go find a big person." June's eyes were open. "What happened?" Alice was crying now.
"Go. Go ask for help."
Alice ran next door, to the convenience mart. The shop, not a chain but an individual bodega, had been there as long as the cleaners. June and Lincoln rarely visited, because the few American staples they regularly purchased—milk, eggs, orange juice—were priced lower in the discount supermarket, and this was not something in their household budget, to purchase for "convenience." The store was owned and operated by a man named Aman. Aman was skinny and tall, and moved as if constructed from heavy material; in the mornings he and Lincoln would exchange greetings, and Alice had seen him smoking a few times by the dumpsters.
Alice passed through the automatic door. She saw Aman recognize her, and then his gaze moved to the dark patch on her leg.
"My mother," she said, and he came swiftly from behind the register.
When the ambulance arrived, followed by the police, Aman locked his front door and came out and sat with Alice on the curb.
June hunched in the back of the ambulance, a hand pressed to her face, insisting she only needed bandages; a translator was eventually summoned, who assured June in clipped Mandarin that she would not be charged, either legally or financially, and eventually June agreed to go to a hospital once Lincoln arrived an hour later. After he parked, Lincoln went first to the police, loping forward in that apologetic manner he adopted whenever near authority—and Alice experienced a wave of disgust toward him, a shameful feeling she then quickly buried.
The voices were caught that night. Logan Schiller and Vince Mays, both seniors at Magdalena High, the same school with good test scores Alice would attend years later. Her parents used the address of the cleaners to enroll her in Saratoga's school district; when the traffic on the 101 was snarled, which was often, Alice's commute neared ninety minutes each way. Magdalena's student parking was filled with German coupes and open-top Jeeps, and half the kids came from up in the hills, from homes with gates and housekeepers. Even though Alice tried to find friends whose backgrounds approximated her own—whose parents were service workers instead of technology managers and real estate developers—when they went to the mall, her friends would order without regard to budget, charging entrées at California Pizza Kitchen. Twice a week Alice would eat by herself in the school library, where she discovered the archive of Magdalena yearbooks. Flipping through the senior portraits, she would count the Asians, the numbers decreasing linearly the earlier the edition. She was leisurely marking off the Mings and Mas in the 1993 volume, eating a tuna sandwich she'd packed that morning, when she came upon Vince Mays.
Alice stopped. She rested a finger on Vince's blond hair. After a few seconds she skipped forward, to Logan Schiller. And then went to the index and found the rest of their pages, moving through and memorizing their faces.
It was Vince who eventually explained what happened. Having ditched school that morning, he and Logan had spent the day at the mall and then taken a bag of Wendy's to the creek. There, idling between diluted Everclear and burgers and baked potatoes, they somehow decided to try a robbery, an easy one. They began at Safeway, Logan dropping two unlocked bottles of Stoli into his backpack. Next they'd walked a few blocks, intending to go to the convenience store, but detouring to Lucky Cleaners. Giddy and drunk, Logan had impulsively swung the backpack containing the Stoli into June's face, knocking her into the sharp corner of the counter. There was so much blood, Vince said. And it all occurred so quickly. It really scared them. They hadn't known what to do.
As he spoke, his voice grew soft and he began to cry. Alice was almost disappointed to hear in his speech none of the evil she'd earlier ascribed, and she realized the scraping drawl that occasionally floated into her consciousness did not belong to Vince, but rather Logan.
Why a dry cleaner? Lincoln had asked. June silent in the chair next to him, her jaw still in braces. Vince had come to the townhome for the official apology, squashed on the couch in between his parents and their family lawyer. Alice was not supposed to be listening, though her parents had been so stressed the day of the visit that none of her rules had been enforced. She had eaten gummy candy for dinner and then crept to the living room to eavesdrop.
It was just an impulse, Vince explained, based on the cleaners' appearance. The faded roof paint, something with the sign's font: it was clearly owned by a foreigner. The Asians and Indians at school never participated in anything: they sat together at lunch, didn't play team sports. Their clothes were bad and when you went to their house the furniture always had a weird smell. He'd heard his parents talk about how after graduation they might move to someplace with fewer immigrants in the neighborhood. As Vince spoke, he left long pauses, as if making space for someone to enter: words words, pause. Words words, pause. But each time, no one else said anything.
It was Logan. He was coming toward them now, led by the woman.
"What's this?" he asked, drawing up, and because Alice knew his face so well, for a moment she was surprised he didn't know hers. June glanced at Alice. It was usually her job to speak to anyone under fifty. In horror Alice realized she had not considered what encountering Logan would do to her mother, but June appeared unbothered. When Alice was silent, June prompted: "Chinese noodles. Try them! You'll like."
"Do they have gluten?" the woman asked. "Yes," Alice said.
"Why are you asking?" Logan said, turning. "You don't have an allergy."
"I just want to know." She pinched a cup, and as she dangled the noodles into her mouth Alice registered the stacks of gold and diamonds that crawled up her fingers.
"Do you like it?" Logan asked.
The woman swallowed. "The kids certainly won't have it. But it's fine. Reminds me of Tokyo." She smiled silkily. Alice could tell she was the sort who carefully considered how to treat service workers when they came to her home, eventually settling on pretending they didn't exist.
"I'll get one," Logan said. He grinned, the easy smile of someone used to having his overtures returned. He paid and then he and his wife slid past, the plastic bag dangling from his fingers.
June flattened the five-dollar bill against the table, readying it for the zipped Clinique pouch they used for cash. Alice knew she shouldn't say something. That actually it would be hideously selfish to say anything at all.
"Do you know who that was?" she blurted.
"Who?" Yet there was something—a flick of the voice. June opened another box of noodles and began to ladle out more samples. "That man. It was the kid. From back in the cleaners."
"Hmm?" June wiped a splash of sauce. "The kid?" "The one who hit you. Who went to Magdalena."
"Oh." June shook her shoulders. "I don't pay attention." Alice dropped into the chair.
"Why you down there?" June asked. "You tired again?"
Alice shook her head, waving her away. To her great shame— especially since she'd never seen June do so, after—she had begun to cry.
"You sick?" June sounded concerned now.
Alice dropped her head into her hands. "Why didn't you ever do anything, back then?"
"What to do? The police, they do their job." Logan and Vince had each attended a weekend class and completed twenty hours of community service.
"You could have asked for something. From the parents. You couldn't work after surgery for weeks! They never even paid your medical deductible! They were obviously wealthy."
June knelt to face her. "Are you needing money?" she asked in a serious voice.
"No! I was asking for you. Look at their families! Their life! You can tell."
"It is its own difficulty to be rich," June said, a statement Alice found particularly implausible coming from her mother. "People like that, they will get a lesson later."
Did they really? From what Alice had observed, it seemed to be the shittiest people to whom good things happened—the loudmouths and self-promoters, who made outsize promises and never checked back to see whether any of it got done. They learned no lesson except to be even worse the next time, and so they networked up the ladder of life. She sighed, and June made the rare gesture of placing a hand on her shoulder. "I want you to be a happy person," she said.
Alice could feel the tears again. She had spent so long polishing her shame; she had so much anger and didn't know why. Her parents never complained, instead finding delight in such small favors, like dinner at a new Chinese restaurant or a surprise rain shower watering their garden. Alice knew that all June and Lincoln wanted was for her to do better than they had. She owed it to them to be happy, it was really such a simple thing, and yet still she was failing.
They sold out earlier than usual. The last five boxes were bought all at once, by a programmer at a start-up that was having its employees work the weekend. Alice selected a bag of white peaches from a nearby stall to take home, while June bought three bags of barbecue almonds.
"Next time I'll make another fifty," June mused in the car, carefully rubbing her fingers so she didn't crumb the barbecue seasoning. "Maybe I can get your father to help, even though he is useless in the kitchen."
"You could also raise prices," Alice said, but June pooh-poohed, as if Alice didn't know anything.
When she arrived home, it was early evening. As soon as Alice entered, she knew Cheri was out; the apartment had that stale air of abandonment, quiet except for the low hum of inert electronics. Alice contemplated drinking. She had a bottle of merlot that had been given to her and Jimmy; since they rarely consumed alcohol, they'd simply accumulated bottles and saved them to regift. After the breakup, however, Alice had stopped being invited to dinners. Locating the corkscrew at the back of the utensils drawer, Alice then tried to open the bottle, but was so unfamiliar with the process that she broke off the top half of the cork.
F--k it, she thought. She poured herself a glass of water and took it into her room.
And then opened her laptop and signed into God Mode and entered the name Logan Schiller.
From IMPOSTOR SYNDROME by Kathy Wang, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2021 by Kathy Wang. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
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