Chapter 1 - Shawn
The next morning, Shawn arrived at the office to find a letter from Professor Diorio, announcing that he had discovered The Truth and therefore would not be returning. The letter contained a few other directions, such as who to see about getting another thesis advisor and where to leave the office keys. It was hand scrawled in the Professor’s jagged script, a code Shawn had learned to decipher after so many years of squinting at memos and marginal notes. Shawn turned it over in his hand once, twice, as if expecting the letters to shake around like a snow globe and form a story he could better understand.
The office looked the same as he’d left it on Friday afternoon, the notable exception being that the Professor was no longer in it. The large, wingback chair behind his desk sat empty, its cracked leather seat still molded around the memory of his frame. Inches of scattered paper still obstructed the desktop from view, and stacks of books still stood around the outer rim of the room beside already bulging bookshelves. Not a thing was out of place. Only this letter, and the mysterious absence of the Professor.
Shawn walked around to the other side of the desk and put a hand on the strong back of the chair to steady himself. More than once in the years they’d worked together, he’d wondered what it was like to sit in the Professor’s chair—feel its worn leather seat envelop him, its wooden arms beneath his hands. But one of the first in the list of rules the Professor had laid in their early days of working together: no one could sit in the chair but him. It had been a gift, he’d said, from an old colleague. Very important to him, though he would say no more. Shawn respected the Professor’s rules.
They had first met at a guest lecture the Professor had given while Shawn was still an undergraduate, from his book Religions of the Mountains. At the time, Shawn was studying regional anthropology, and the Professor’s lecture had blown him away. As the foremost regional expert on Appalachian history and culture, he’d spent the past few years living amongst a small Christian sect of hill people who worshiped Judas Iscariot as their patron saint. They claimed that, next to Jesus Christ, Judas was the most vital and trusted of all of God’s people, as he had been chosen to deliver His son into the course of events that would bring about the salvation of the world. He described a culture of righteous betrayal that had been built around this belief, where lying to a friend for their own good or the good of the group was considered a virtue. Shawn was captivated. After the talk, he stood in line for nearly an hour, waiting for the Professor to sign a copy of his book. When he did, Shawn mentioned his own interests and what he was studying, and the Professor suggested he apply to the university in West Virginia. Now, four years later, Shawn stood behind the Professor’s own desk, staring down at the note that now signaled the end of his old life.
Slowly, he pulled the chair back from its place behind the desk and lowered himself into it. The leather groaned under his weight. The wooden arm rests were smooth and cold. Shawn relaxed into its enveloping frame. From this new angle, the office didn’t seem quite so chaotic. Indeed, from his seat behind the desk, rather than being strewn haphazardly about the room, with this new perspective the stacks of books and papers seemed to somehow align to form a waiting audience, gathered in a rough semi-circle around him, with the empty visitors chair across from him as the star pupil. This must be what the Professor had seen every day of the three years they had been working together – Shawn surrounded by a class of notes and ancient texts, all waiting patiently for his wisdom. Shawn sighed to himself. As usual, he had failed to see what for the Professor had been right there all along.
It was then that Shawn’s heart leapt into his throat, pulling him nearly up and out of the leather-backed chair, as the phone on the desk jumped to life only inches from him, ringing once, twice, accusing, daring him to answer.