Read on for the first chapter
There’s a thin, fragile line that separates us all from misfortune. A place where life teeters on a razor’s edge, and everything boils down to one single, solitary second. Where you will either whiz past the Mack truck blissfully unaware, or you will slam into it head-on. Where there’s a before, and then, without warning or apology, there’s an after.
For the past three years, I’ve rewound to those last before moments, moments I was still blissfully unaware I was about to be blindsided. I’ve tried to pinpoint the very spot when tragedy struck. It wasn’t when Chelsea took her last breath, though that was certainly a tragedy. No, the tipping point was somewhere in the days leading up to her death, when her story was barreling like a deadly virus across the internet, snowballing and mutating and infecting everyone it touched. Infecting her with words I wrote and sent out into the world. I guess you could say I poisoned her with them.
To the rest of the world, Chelsea Vogel looked like any other white, American, middle-class mother in her early thirties. On the dowdy side of forgettable, one of those women you acknowledge with a bland smile as she pushes her cart by yours in the grocery store, or idles patiently in her car while you hang up the gas pump and climb back behind the wheel of yours. You see her but, for the life of you, couldn’t pick her out of a lineup five minutes later.
But underneath all that dull suburban facade burned a big, bright secret.
I had no idea of any of this, of course, that scorching Tuesday afternoon I walked into her slightly shabby offices south of Baltimore to interview her for iWoman.com, the online news magazine I was reporting for at the time. I only knew that as the founder and CEO of American Society for Truth, Chelsea was an outspoken opponent of gay rights, one who preached about God-ordained sexuality and the natural family to anyone who would listen. And people seemed to be listening, especially once she became a regular contributor on conservative news senders.
“I’m Abigail Wolff,” I told the receptionist, a slight woman by the name of Maria Duncan. “I have an interview with Mrs. Vogel.”
Maria offered me coffee and showed me to the conference room. I noticed her because she was pretty—short pixie hair, a fresh face, clothes that were fashionable but not flashy. But I remember her because two weeks later, she slid me the story that ended my career.
“Here,” she said to me that day, shoving the file across the table before I’d settled into the seat across from her. “This is for you.”
I’d known when she asked me to meet her at a Cracker Barrel in Linthicum Heights just south of Baltimore, it wasn’t to become friends over sweet teas and biscuits. But never in a million years would I have guessed what greeted me when I opened that file. Dozens and dozens of photographs, each one dated and timed, of a naked Maria and Chelsea. In bed, on the backseat of a minivan, atop both of their desks.
“Who took these?” I said, flipping through them. Judging by the low resolution and awkward angles, I was placing my money on a hidden camera, and an inexpensive one.
Maria shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. They’re real. There’s a DVD in there, too, with about twenty different videos.”
I pushed everything back into the file and closed the cover. Maria was well above legal age, probably somewhere in her mid to late twenties. That didn’t mean, however, that Chelsea Vogel wasn’t a predator, or that the affair wouldn’t be one hell of a story…and a byline.
But still. If this story hit, Maria needed to know what she was in for.
“What do you think your family will say when they open up their morning newspaper and see these?”
Her chin went up. “There’s no one to see it. The only family I had left died last year.”
“Your friends, then. Do any of them know you’re sleeping with your female boss?”
“I don’t…” She glanced down at the table, then lifted her gaze to mine, clinging to it like maple syrup, thick and sticky. “I just moved here from Detroit. The people here aren’t exactly friendly.”
I took this to mean she hadn’t made very many friends yet.
I gestured to the envelope between us. “So, what’s this about, then? Is it to get attention? To prove to people that you’re loved? Because I can guarantee you people are going to think a lot of things when they see these pictures, but not much of it’s going to be nice.”
“I don’t give a shit what people think. This isn’t about getting noticed. This is about Chelsea Vogel taking advantage of me. She was my boss, and she used her position of authority to make me think she loved me.”
“So this story is about revenge.”
“No.” Maria’s answer was immediate and emphatic. “This story is about justice. What she did to me may not be a crime, officially, but it was still wrong. She should still be punished.”
“Take it to the HR department. They’ll make sure Chelsea Vogel is fired, and they’ll be inclined to keep things quiet.”
“Chelsea is the HR department, don’t you get it? American Society for Truth is her project. And I don’t want to be quiet. I’m done being quiet. I’m the victim here, and I want Chelsea to pay.”
I told myself it was the righteousness in her tone, the resolve creasing her brow and fisting her hands that convinced me, and not the idea of my name attached to a story that I knew, I knew would go viral.
“I’ll do what I can to protect your identity, but you need to be aware that there’s a very real probability it’ll get out, and when it does, every single second of your life will be altered. Not just now, but tomorrow and the next day and the next. This scandal—and make no mistake about it, this is a scandal for you just as much as it is for her—will follow you for the rest of your life. You’ll never be anonymous ever again.”
She swallowed, thought for a long moment. “I think I still want you to write the story.”
“You think? Or you know?” I leaned forward and watched her closely. Not just her answer but also her body language would determine my course of action.
“I know.” She straightened her back, squared her shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. “I want you to write the story.”
So that’s what I did. I wrote the story.
I did everything right, too. I checked facts and questioned witnesses, volunteers and employees at neighboring businesses and the building janitor. I made sure the evidence had not been digitally altered, compared the dates and times on the photographs to both women’s work and home schedules. I held back Maria’s name, blurred out faces, released only the least damning of the pictures, the ones where there was no way, no possible way Maria would be recognized. I did every goddamn thing right, but within twenty-four hours of my story breaking, Maria’s identity, along with every single one of the photographs and videos in clear, full-color focus, exploded across the internet anyway. Just like, if I’m being completely honest with myself, I knew they would.
Two weeks later, on a beautiful January morning, Chelsea Vogel hanged herself in the shower. I wasn’t there when it happened, of course, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t responsible for her death. After all, those were my words that made her drive those five miles in her minivan to the Home Depot for a length of braided rope, then haul it home and knot it around her neck. I knew when I put them out there that both women’s lives would be changed. I just never dreamed one of them would also end.
Secrets are a sneaky little seed. You can hide them, you can bury them, you can disguise them and cover them up. But then, just when you think your secret has rotted away and decayed into nothing, it stirs back to life. It sprouts roots and stems, crawls its way through the mud and muck, growing and climbing and bursting through the surface, blooming for everyone to see. That’s the lesson here. The truth always comes out eventually.
But I can no longer be the one to write about it.