Ringleader

Image of Nathan Ousey

Nathan Ousey

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“Glad you can finally see my office,” said professor Smith, opening the door for his brother. He led Maxwell into the open space, and then scampered across the floor to open the window, flooding the room with bright light. The view in front of his desk oversaw a large part of the Illinois college campus, complete with the distant chattering of students that could be heard from five stories up.

Maxwell whistled. “I never would’ve thought college faculty would have places this nice. A lot of drawers about it, too, but the surfaces are empty and clean. You hiding something around here?” He gave his brother a side glance for an uncomfortable second, then laughed.

Smith smiled and scratched the back of his neck. Unsure of what else to do with his body, he eventually settled on leaning against his desk and looking outside while his guest perused the bookshelves. In the field in front of his building, a small-scale carnival was being held. Droves of students went between food stands, prize games, and a miniature circus tent. Smith considered how they appeared so light-hearted and in-the-moment in the face of such entertainment, but he acknowledged that no one could truly know what troubles lurked in their minds. To Smith, the carnival was but a feeble distraction imposed by the university to briefly take students away from their responsibilities, only to have them come crashing back down once the festivities ended.

“Can I get you some tea?” he asked Maxwell, snapping out of his thoughts.

“Ever the Englishman. But sure,” his brother said.

“You’re one to talk as a private investigator,” Smith retorted. “Always trying to be the next Sherlock Holmes.”

“You seem to imply that Sherlock once actually existed.” Maxwell smirked. “Not to mention he wasn’t a P.I. at all, but rather a self-proclaimed ‘consulting detective.’”

Smith sighed. He never could best his brother at witticisms. In Maxwell’s presence, he felt robbed of his position as a university professor, reduced to someone lower and simpler.

"That said...” Maxwell continued, running his finger along a side table. “My earlier question wasn’t rhetorical. Just what are you hiding up in here? You’re all but absent in family functions lately, preferring to deal with your work, which I assume all takes place in here. I couldn’t help but notice that your desk faces the window. As a professor, shouldn’t you be pointed at the door, ready to greet students as they come in? It’s almost as if you’re afraid of having your back to the window, afraid that the world might look in on what you’re doing.”

Averting his gaze, Smith knew he was foolish to think he could ever keep any part of his life private from his brother.

“Let me show you what I’ve been doing, then,” he said quietly, opening a drawer in his desk and retrieving a slim laptop. Maxwell approached with curiosity, placing his hands on the smooth desk. Smith pulled up a website address titled essayrelief.com. A professional-looking web page popped up.

“What is all this, Ashton?” Smith didn’t like his first name being brought up.

“An essay-writing service. By me.” He studied his brother’s concerned face. “Students from across the country anonymously request essays that I write for them based on certain guidelines, so long as they provide a valid and well-explained reason why they don’t have the time to write it themselves. So no, I don’t often have students visit my office, but I’m helping more students than you realize.”

Maxwell blinked a few times. “You, a college professor, are--- No, this is absurd. Doesn’t this go against everything your job stands for? It may be legal, but you’d be fired for this one for sure. And even I won’t be able to save you if that happens.” He squinted and leaned in closer to the screen, reading a sub-header on the page. “To help those who feel like life throws too much at them, too fast.” He froze. “Ash... please tell me this isn’t about---”

“This is to help kids like Charlotte,” Smith said.

“Christ, Ash!” His brother slammed his hand on the desk. “I know you were close to her, but do you realize how bad it makes me look when you can’t stop grieving over my dead daughter while I’m trying to move on with my life? You’re turning her tragedy into a damned circus! Whether you mean to or not, she’s like some kind of freak show that you can’t help bringing everyone in to see.”

“If people stop hearing about her, they can’t learn from her death,” Smith said. “I’m borrowing the words from her final letter because they relate to hundreds of students. You should know more than anyone how overwhelmed with everything she was. Including her schoolwork. I can’t stop thinking about how, if even one burden was lifted from her shoulders, she wouldn’t have---”

Maxwell pushed himself away from the desk and stormed out of the room. Smith didn’t know what his brother would do. Would he report him and steal his job away in anger? He couldn’t put it past him. He only knew one thing: if he lost his job, it only meant that his writing service was his true calling. He would relieve students from assignments rather than deal them out like a ringleader delivering their final performance.

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