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The Student Body

                                    Laura Hershey

Evie entered my life smiling, quickly claiming her space in my dorm room. On the day she moved in, her father carried her suitcase and a few other belongings, while her twin brother and sister tagged along. The twins were about nine; Evie was nineteen. Yet they talked and whispered together like three giggly kids. Evie’s mother told her to be good, and to call if she needed anything.

Evie chattered as she unpacked; I watched and listened. “Do you like this dress?” she asked, holding up a bright red cocktail dress. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? But I can’t wear it. It’s Creighton’s favorite. Creighton is my boyfriend. He’s away at college, and I promised him I would only wear this dress when I’m with him. So I don’t know why I brought it along, but it’s just so pretty, isn’t it? Here’s Creighton,” she added, showing me a photograph of a handsome teenage boy. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I answered. I backed up my wheelchair to let her pass. She taped the boy’s photo on the wall above the head of her bed. Unable to think of anything else to say about dresses or boyfriends—two areas in which I had very little experience—I changed the subject. “After you’re done putting your things away, could you come with me to the snack shop at the student center? It’s called the Hub. I want to get something to eat, and do some reading.”

“Okay,” Evie said distractedly, as she continued sorting her clothes and taping up pictures. One photo showed her with her parents and the twins.

“Your family seems nice,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “they’re all right.” Then she smiled broadly. “Jimmy’s great. He’s so funny… but did you know I was adopted?” I noticed then how different she looked from her parents and siblings. They looked like practically everyone I knew—pale white, with brownish hair and medium builds. Evie, on the other hand, had long, thick black hair and shining black eyes. Her skin had a rich glow that she accented with blush and eye shadow. I would have guessed her ancestry to originate somewhere in the South Pacific. Her body was heavier than what most girls aimed for, but she carried herself with a sort of voluptuous ease.

Her unpacking finally completed, Evie stretched out on her twin bed, basking in the late afternoon sun coming in through the window. I hesitated. “Um, when you’re ready,” I said, “let’s go to the Hub, okay? And could you get those two books from the little table next to my bed?”

Evie sighed, then reluctantly got up. She pulled a hairbrush out of her bag and went into the bathroom. She spent about five minutes lovingly brushing her dark tresses. Then she announced that she was ready to go.

We made our way across campus. As I steered my wheelchair carefully along the walkways, Evie walked with her chin held up, as if she were proud of her well-coiffed beauty or, perhaps, daring anyone to question her presence on campus—I wasn’t sure which. I did sense her insecurity, disguised with clothes and makeup. I began to feel protective toward her. After all, she was there to help me; that was her only status at this small, elite college. No admissions committee had evaluated or selected her. I had chosen her myself, so I would have to make sure she fit in and was comfortable.

The Hub was filling up, as students returned from weekend trips, took breaks from studying, and met for regular Sunday afternoon bridge games, but I was able to get a table near the window. I liked watching the sun drop quietly behind the campus’ stately old buildings and trees as people passed, going various directions, some talking in pairs or groups, others alone with an armload of books. I ordered a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a hot apple cider, and Evie ordered a cheeseburger. The cashier gave me the total, and I asked Evie to get my money from the bag on the back of my wheelchair.

While we waited for our food, I asked Evie to open my Western Civilization book and prop it in front of me, with the upper part resting on another text, and my hand resting on the lower half to hold the book open. I directed her in adjusting it to the angle that would catch the best light. I began reading, every few minutes asking Evie to turn the page.

When our food was ready, Evie went to the counter to pick it up. She set our paper plates on the table, then sat down and took a bite of her burger. She leaned back in her seat and chewed contentedly. I waited for her to prepare my food. Instead, she gave herself another bite.

“Evie,” I finally said. “Could you please spread the cream cheese on both halves of the bagel?” She leaned forward and did so. “And could you give me a bite?” She held the bagel to my mouth. As I studied, Evie fed me and herself.

Thus I settled into my second year of college, with Evie as my roommate and helper. I had big plans: My schedule was crammed with tantalizing classes, mostly history and English, plus a calculus course I’d been forced to add to fulfill a requirement. Most exciting, I would be working for the college newspaper, writing and editing feature articles.

I had loved my freshman year, maintaining a frantic schedule in order to soak up all the experiences a college campus had to offer—art films, frat parties, recitals, feminist meetings—on top of classes and homework. Somehow I had kept up, and so had my attendants. Dee, who had lived with me throughout my first year, had been exhausted each Friday when she’d left for her mother’s house—but she’d returned every Monday ready for more, after resting for two days while my weekend aide worked. Having Dee as my attendant had made this living away from home thing seem easy.

When I’d gone home for the summer, Dee had taken a job in a fast food restaurant. Smart and reliable, she had quickly been promoted to management. She started making more money than my parents could pay. She had told me regretfully that she wouldn’t be returning to work for me in the fall. So my parents and I had advertised for a new live-in aide. We’d interviewed only two applicants, and one really didn’t seem strong enough for the physical demands of the job: turning and lifting my body.

The other was Evie. During the interview, we learned that Evie came from a close family, and she was cheerful. Both good qualities. She was quite young, of course—fresh out of high school, this would be her first time living away from home—but I counted this as an asset too. I had just turned eighteen, and I didn’t want an aide who was older and wiser, who might take it upon herself to tell me what to do. Her exuberance, I thought, would make up for her lack of experience.

I expected my second year of college to be similar to my first, but better. I now had more friends, a somewhat clearer academic direction, and a year’s worth of experience living apart from my parents, managing my own time, needs, and resources (even if those resources came from my mom and dad). But a couple of weeks after school started, the basic infrastructure of my daily existence was in serious disrepair. I tried as hard as I could to ignore the symptoms, but more and more of them kept cropping up. My school papers and important personal documents became hopelessly disorganized, and my room’s messiness exceeded even college dorm standards. Worse was the evidence of my own body: Most days I went to class with dirty, oily hair. Some mornings I didn’t even get my teeth brushed.

Although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when Evie’s ability to assist me began to falter, I suspect it was shortly after she moved in. When she talked to her family on the phone, she told them that she did “everything” for me. I suppose she did do a lot, but at times she bristled at having to set aside her own needs and desires in order to meet mine. If she was sitting on her bed writing a letter, and I asked her for a drink of water, she would pause for a moment, scowling, before getting up. She always seemed overworked, and often annoyed.

Evie functioned better in some circumstances than in others. Alone in the dorm room, she became lazy and resentful. She drank the bottles of wine that I bought for myself. She kept her side of the room attractively tidy, with pictures of lush flowers and her handsome boyfriend taped to the wall above her bed, while she left my bed unmade and dirty dishes on my bedside table.

In more public settings her services ranged from adequate to exemplary. In groups of people, she came to life, cheerfully carrying out her duties for me while chatting with anyone else whose attention she could momentarily attract. She always insisted that I introduce her to people I was interacting with, however briefly, and if I didn’t, she’d display a pointedly hurt expression and would later tell me that I was treating her as if she were invisible. As long as she felt included, she would work hard at responding to my requests, whether for help putting on a sweater, taking a bite of cookie, or flipping through pages of class notes.

Evie’s occasional conscientiousness wasn’t enough for me, though, because my needs followed me wherever I went. I was determined to be in charge of my own life, but how could I be, if I couldn’t count on her help?

I began to realize how serious things had become during a session with Mike, a physical therapist who came to my dorm for thirty minutes, twice a week, to do range of motion (ROM) on my shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles. My parents had started me on a PT regimen years earlier, and I decided to keep it up when I left for college, even though I had known for a long time that this wasn’t going to make me any stronger, or even prevent loss of strength. The idea of the exercises was to maintain circulation, and keep my joints from becoming any more contracted.

One afternoon, I was lying on my bed while Mike worked on me. He had finished bending and stretching my arms and was now starting on my legs. Placing one hand under my ankle and one under my knee, he lifted my leg up, extending it as far as it could comfortably go. I became aware of a foul smell hanging in the air between me and Mike. It was the smell of my unwashed crotch. I felt deeply embarrassed. Surreptitiously I glanced at Mike’s face to see if he was reacting. If anything he looked even more non-expressive than usual, as if he were making an effort not to notice. I knew without a doubt that he smelled it too.

That humiliating moment should have been a wake-up call for me, but I tried not to think about it, because I wasn’t sure what to do to about Evie. She had the skills, if not always the inclination, to do my personal care. It hadn’t been easy to find someone who could learn these skills, and who was available and willing to move in with me and work full-time. Hiring someone new now, in the middle of my school year, seemed impossible.

The scarcity of possible attendants was not the only barrier keeping me from confronting the fact that I was getting such poor care. There was another factor, one that bound Evie and me together even more than my needs did.

Several weeks into the semester, an innocuous-looking piece of paper appeared just inside the door of my room. Evie picked it up and together we read its scrawled message: YOU DIE.

This cryptic, anonymous note initially baffled, then chilled me. Gradually it dawned on me that this simple sentence, just subject and verb, could be read as either a prophecy or a threat. But why? Who would want to frighten me with such a sentence?

Evie, wide-eyed with fear, asked me what we should do. I had no idea.

Other mysterious messages followed, all simple but menacing: LEAVE OR DIE, said one. Another, arriving days or weeks later, read KILL YOU.

The telephone in my room became another source of alarm. Evie typically answered our phone, even though it was usually for me. She’d jump to the ring and speak a chipper “hello” before shooting me an annoyed glance and propping the receiver on my shoulder. Now, every few days, the phone would ring but no one would be there. The line was live, not disconnected, but the only sound would be of somebody listening.

I regretted that living with me was also putting Evie near the target of someone’s rage. At the same time, I was glad that I wasn’t facing this alone.

After the second note arrived, I called my parents. It was difficult to explain at first; nothing like this had ever happened to any of us before. They expressed confusion, then worry.

After the third note, I called them again. By now I was getting scared, and they urged me to come home for the rest of the week and the weekend. I agreed, relieved not only to be safe from anonymous hate mail, but also to give Evie and myself a break from each other. My Mom could do my care for a few days. Along with home-cooked meals and some rest, I’d get good, refreshing bed baths and shampoos.

On Sunday evening, as my Dad drove me in my van south on I-25 toward Colorado Springs, back to school, I felt restored physically, but I also had a sense of dread at the prospect of returning to Evie’s neglect and, maybe, to those handwritten expressions of someone’s contempt.

One afternoon I was in the Catalyst newspaper office in the recesses of the basement of the oldest building on campus, working against a production deadline. While I was proud of my status there, and of the skills that had landed me the position, I was also deeply uncertain of both—a fact I never let on to anyone, lest someone confirm my doubts. On this particular day, I was moving through a series of tasks essential to the publication of the latest issue: proofreading the galleys, making last-minute edits, writing headlines, fitting together the columns of print and the graphics. I could feel the stress and the excitement of putting all the pieces together both quickly and creatively. I was functioning as an equal part of a smart team of journalists, offering ideas and reminders. Even Evie was doing her part, following my directions with cheerful efficiency. I was just starting to believe that we were going to get everything done on time, and even better, that the pages were going to look good—balanced, eye-catching, just a bit edgy.

My relief was premature. Getting ready to put the finishing touches on the issue, I asked Evie to bring over a black-and-white print that we had placed on a nearby desk earlier in the afternoon. She went to get it and, not finding it, called over to ask where I’d meant. I looked. She was at the right desk, right where we’d left it. “It’s right there,” I said. “Just look again.” She shook her head.

We all spent the next ten minutes in a frantic, office-wide search for the missing photo and then, after finally giving up, another forty-five minutes figuring out how to compose the page without it. I went from authority to apology. My peers didn’t blame me, at least not aloud, but I blamed myself furiously. I was responsible for this particular section, and it was the one with the disappointing hole where the perfect photo had been. I told myself it wasn’t the end of the world. In any case, I knew that I couldn’t do anything about it now except to rearrange the page and find something else to fill that space.

There was no reasonable or innocent explanation for the disappearance of the photograph. It had definitely been right there, and since it was destined for my page, no one else would have had any reason to take it or move it. Yet someone had. I had seen perhaps a dozen people come in and out of the office that afternoon. There must have been one more, someone who was not supposed to be there but who had entered and exited without being noticed. Someone who wanted me to fail.

The harassment I had been enduring in my dorm room had now followed me out into the wider world. To my mind, the photo’s disappearance sent an even more sinister message than those crudely written notes. The notes were just words, and I knew that words could mean what they said, or not. This theft, this wordless act, seemed a much more serious threat. It was in fact more than a threat; it was a direct hit.

I began going home almost every weekend, just to escape the on-campus stresses. Several times my parents suggested I could take the rest of the semester off and stay at home with them until the possible danger had passed. I stubbornly refused to consider this possibility. That would be an unbearable defeat, I thought—an admission that I couldn’t live independently after all. Someone was challenging my very right to be where I most wanted and needed to be—at school, out in the world, on my own. I reacted with defiance: I would stay right where I was, keep doing what I was doing. I hesitated to voice any of the trepidation I was feeling. Instead I put on a brave face, telling my parents that this was really no big deal.

Knowing how important college was to my sense of self, they didn’t push the issue. They did, however, insist on reporting the threats to the college administration. The school, they said, had an obligation to keep me safe. Lacking any ideas of my own, I reluctantly agreed.

Dean Marcus Reynolds entered the scene with calm authority. He met with my parents and me to gather all the facts, and urged me to contact him with any new developments. I did so, and each time he responded conscientiously and reassuringly. In addition, Dean Reynolds suggested that I might see a counselor, a service which the school offered its students. I met with the campus therapist once, but wasn’t sure how to talk about how the situation was affecting me emotionally. Mainly, I was embarrassed by the attention I was attracting, not for my academic or journalistic activities as I would have preferred, but for presenting a security problem. I was also embarrassed by the therapeutic conversation itself. The counselor pointed out that I seemed to deal with anxiety by laughing.

Soon, Dean Reynolds let us know that the local police had been brought in to investigate. I felt uncomfortable in the role of crime victim, but I hoped that the presence of law enforcement might stop the notes and the other mysterious incidents, so I could enjoy school without these recurring hints that I really didn’t belong. More and more, I also wanted my harasser caught and punished. I couldn’t quite conjure a picture of the note-writer—not even the gender—but in my mind I had developed an amateur psychological profile of the perpetrator: He or she probably lived in my building, possibly on the same wing, and was offended by my presence in this elite institution where the “student body” tended to be an able body—and a well-dressed and attractive one. This hateful student didn’t care that I was smart and ambitious, only that I was here in violation of some unwritten admission standard favoring conformity and normalcy. I had already encountered plenty of snobs on campus, kids overly impressed with their own wealth, family name, or social status. The notes could be coming from any one of them or, more likely, from someone just as intolerant but quieter, angrier. As the ugly correspondence continued, I was growing angry myself. I had as much right to be here as anyone. Didn’t I?

One Friday Dean Reynolds called to tell me that an officer would be interviewing me. He assured me that the police had been working hard on the case, and were hoping to have some answers soon. Casually he mentioned that Evie would be interviewed by a different officer.

Next morning, as scheduled, two uniformed men came to the dorm. One stayed with me, and the other asked Evie to follow him down the hall to the resident advisor’s room. I asked why they couldn’t talk with us together, and the lead officer told me that it was common procedure to interview witnesses separately.

When we were alone, he began asking questions about each incident, starting from the beginning. I answered carefully, providing all the facts he asked for, with as much detail as I could remember, while he took careful notes in a small notebook. I had begun our meeting in a state of shaky unease, but as it progressed I felt more comfortable, even confident in my ability to provide solid information which might help break the case. I felt stronger as I began to think of myself as a witness rather than as a victim.

After about half an hour, the officer told me he had all the information he needed. He thanked me, and told me not to worry, it would be all right.

After the two policemen left, Evie came into our room, looking stricken. “How did it go for you?” I asked her.

“You won’t believe it,” she said, her voice shaking. “They think we did it.”


“He said that you and I wrote the notes ourselves. He said you just wanted attention.”

I was stunned. “Are you sure?” I asked. “The other cop didn’t say anything about that.”

Evie nodded solemnly. “I told him that was wrong, that you wouldn’t do that,” she said. “But he said it’s true, and he’s going to tell Dean Reynolds all about it.”

I asked Evie to get me the phone, and to dial my parents’ number. As soon as I heard my mother’s voice, I started crying. I told her what Evie had told me. Mom sounded astonished and angry, which helped me to calm down a little. Mom said she and my Dad would drive down and we could all meet with Dean Reynolds to find out just what the hell was going on. They arrived a couple of hours later, followed by Evie’s father who came to take her home.   

In Dean Reynolds’s office, I sat silent and sullen as he told my parents that the police had reached a conclusion in their investigation. Then I interrupted: “I can’t believe you think Evie and I did this to ourselves. You’re blaming the victims!” 

“Laura, no one suspects you,” he said. Then he addressed my parents: “But there is good reason to believe that Evie is behind these incidents.”

“No she isn’t!” I shouted, now furiously protective of Evie, and desperate to get the inquiry back on track, to get some more acceptable answers. “Tell him,” I entreated my parents.

“It does seem unlikely,” my Dad said mildly. “She’s just a young girl, and she takes good care of Laurie here. I can’t see why she would want to hurt her this way.”

I had never told my parents about the grooming problems I had with Evie, but Mom had seen the evidence herself on those Friday nights when I arrived home badly in need of bathing. “Well,” she said, “Evie is not very mature, and I’m not sure she does such a good job, does she Laura?”

I thought this was beside the point, and didn’t answer.

My mother continued, “But she is a sweet girl, and this isn’t the kind of thing she would do. Maybe the person responsible is trying to place the blame on an outsider?”

At this I nodded. As hard as Evie tried to make friends on campus, she never really succeeded. She wasn’t rich or an intellectual, and as my attendant she played a role which most students found unfamiliar and perplexing, so people tended to overlook her, and some probably looked down on her. I was impressed that my mother recognized the role of snobbery in this drama. I thought it was a pretty good theory.

Dean Reynolds listened, but shook his head. He had been trying to be diplomatic, but now he took charge of the conversation. He laid out the basic facts: Evie had always been the one to find the notes. None of the incidents had ever occurred on Evie’s days off. Weekends were trouble-free, even when I stayed on campus. The handwriting on the notes had been compared with some of Evie’s personal papers and, while not conclusive, their similarity did implicate her.

“Wait,” I cut in. “What about the phone calls? She couldn’t have made those; she was with me.”

The police, Dean Reynolds said, believed that Evie’s young brother Jimmy may have been involved as well. There was some evidence that he had made the calls from his home, at times specified by Evie.

I could tell by my parents’ troubled expressions that they were beginning to be persuaded. I was still unconvinced, wondering what I could say to get everyone to start talking sensibly.

The police had uncovered even more, Dean Reynolds told us. Two years earlier, when she was a junior in high school, Evie and her locker mate had reported receiving a series of hateful, threatening notes. The two girls had cried together, comforted each other, and had appealed for help from sympathetic school officials. At the height of the turmoil, Evie had been observed writing and stuffing a note into the locker herself.

The police had learned more about Evie from her high school administrators. She was prone to lying, or, perhaps more accurately, to believing her own fantasies. For example, for several years she had pretended that a classmate, a popular football player named Creighton, was her boyfriend, when, in fact, she had never dated him. This was the boy whose face I saw every day, smiling from the wall in Evie’s corner of our room.

These last few facts crumpled my obstinate loyalty toward Evie.

Studies show that people with disabilities have a much greater likelihood than the general public of suffering some type of abuse. Most often, this abuse is committed by someone who is in a helping role: a bus driver, a nurse, or an attendant, for example. These individuals, by virtue of the services they provide, or of their professional status, or simply their proximity to the disabled person and the secrecy surrounding both of them, often get away with their crimes. The year that I met Evie, I had my own vulnerabilities, due to my inexperience. I was still testing my wings of independence—eager to take on the world but not fully equipped for the hazards I might encounter.

After that meeting with Dean Reynolds, I went home for the weekend, and when I returned, all traces of Evie had vanished from my dorm room. I did not try to contact her, nor she me. I never saw her again. As much trouble as she caused me, I didn’t feel anger toward her. What I did feel was difficult to name, something like bewildered pity. I hoped that she would never again feel compelled to concoct crises and stir fear. Most of all, I hoped that she’d eventually land someplace—as I had—where she could fit in.

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