The Dead Student

John Katzenbach

The Dead Student

Copyright © 2015 by John Katzenbach

“And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

WM. SHAKESPEARE, The Merchant of Venice

PART ONE: Conversations Between Dead Men

This is what Moth came to understand:

Addiction and murder have things in common.

In each, someone will want you to confess:

I’m a killer.


I’m an addict.

In each, at some point you’re supposed to give in to a higher power:

For your typical murderer, it’s the law. Cops, judges, maybe a prison cell. For run- of-the-mill addicts, it’s God or Jesus or Buddha or just about anything conceivably stronger than the drugs or the drink. But just give in to it. It’s the only way out. Assuming you want out.

He never thought either confession or concession was part of his emotional makeup. He did know that addiction was. He was unsure about killing, but he was determined that before too long he would find out.


Timothy Warner found his uncle’s body because he woke up that morning with an intense and frighteningly familiar craving, an emptiness within that buzzed deeply and repeatedly like a loud off-key chord on an electric guitar. At first he hoped that it was left over from a dream of happily knocking back shots of iced vodka with impunity. But then he reminded himself that this was his ninety-ninth day without a drink, and he realized that if he wanted to see the hundredth he would have to work hard to get through the day sober. So as soon as his feet hit the cold floor by his bed, before he glanced out the window to check the weather, or stretched his arms above his head to try to force some life into tired muscles, he reached for his iPhone and tapped the application that kept a running count of his sobriety. Yesterday’s ninety-eight clicked to ninety-nine.

He stared at the number for a moment. He no longer felt heady satisfaction or even a twinge of success. That enthusiasm had fled. Now he understood that the daily marker was just another reminder that he was always at risk. Fail. Give in. Let slip. Slide a little.

And he would be dead.

Maybe not right away, but sooner or later. He sometimes thought that sobriety was like standing unsteadily on the edge of a tall cliff, dizzily staring down into some vast Grand Canyon while being buffeted unceasingly in the midst of a gale. A gust would topple him off, and he would tumble headlong into space.

He knew this, as much as any person can know anything.

Across the room was a cheap, black-framed, three-quarter-length mirror propped up against the wall of his small apartment, next to the expensive bicycle that he used to get to his classes-his car and driver’s license having been taken away during his last failure. Dressed only in his baggy underwear, he stood and looked at his body.

He did not really like what he saw.

Where once he’d been attractively wiry, now he was cadaverously thin, all ribs and muscles with a single poorly executed drunken-night tattoo of a sad clown’s face up on his left shoulder. He had thick jet-black hair that he wore long and unkempt. He had dark eyebrows and an engaging, slightly cockeyed smile that made him seem friendlier than he actually thought he was. He did not know whether he was handsome, although the girl he thought was truly beautiful had told him once that he was. He had the long, thin arms and legs of a runner. He had been a second-string wide receiver on his high school football team and a straight-A student, the go-to guy for help on any upcoming chemistry lab or perilously overdue English essay. One of the biggest players on the team, a hulking lineman, stole four letters from the middle of his name, explaining that Tim or Timmy just didn’t suit Moth’s frequently driven look. It stuck, and Timothy Warner didn’t mind it all that much, because he believed moths had odd virtues and took chances flying dangerously close to open flames in their obsession with seeking light. So Moth it was, and he rarely used his full first name save for formal occasions, family gatherings, or AA meetings, when he would introduce himself saying, “Hello, my name is Timothy, and I’m an alcoholic.”

He did not think his remote parents or his deeply estranged older brother and sister still remembered his high school nickname. The only person who used it regularly, and affectionately, was his uncle, whom he hurriedly dialed as he stared at his reflection. Moth knew he had to protect himself from himself and calling his uncle was pretty much the first step at self-preservation.

As expected, he got the answering machine: “This is Doctor Warner. I’m with a patient now. Please leave a message and I will get back to you promptly.”

“Uncle Ed, it’s Moth. Really had the big crave this morning. Need to go to a meeting. Can you join me at Redeemer One for the six p.m. tonight? I’ll see you there and maybe we can talk after. I think I can make it through the day okay.” He didn’t know about this last flimsy promise.

Nor would his uncle.

Maybe, Moth thought, I should go to the lunch meeting over at the university’s student activities center or the mid-morning meeting in the back room at the Salvation Army store just six blocks away. Maybe I should just crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head, and hide until the 6 p.m. meeting.

He preferred the early evening sessions at the First Redemption Church, which he and his uncle called Redeemer One for brevity and to give the church an exotic spaceship name. He was a regular there, as were many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who chose to confess their cravings in the church’s comfortable, wood-paneled meeting room and overstuffed fake leather couches instead of the low-slung basement rooms, with their stiff metal folding chairs and harsh overhead lights, of most meeting places. A wealthy benefactor of the church had lost a brother to alcoholism, and it was his funding that kept the seats comfortable and the coffee fresh. Redeemer One had a sense of exclusivity. Moth was the youngest participant by far.

The ex-drunks and onetime addicts who went to Redeemer One all came from the distant worlds Moth had been told over and over he was destined to join. At least, being a doctor or a lawyer or a successful businessman was what others who probably didn’t know him all that well thought he should become.

Not a drunk doctor, addicted lawyer, or strung-out businessman.

His hand shook a little and he thought, No one tells their kid they’re gonna grow up to be a drunk or a junkie. Not in the good old USA. Land of opportunity. Here we say you’ve got a chance to grow up and be president. But a lot more people end up as drunks.

This was an easy conclusion.

He smiled wanly as he added, Probably the one or two kids that actually do get told they’re gonna grow up into drunks are so motivated to avoid that fate that they become president.

He left his iPhone on the counter in the bathroom so he could hear it ring and hurried into the steaming-hot shower. Thick shampoo and blistering water, he hoped, could scrub away caked layers of anxiety.

He had half dried off when the phone buzzed.

“Uncle Ed?”

“Hey Moth-boy, I just got your message. Trouble?”


“Big trouble?”

“Not yet. Just the want, you know. It kinda shook me up.”

“Did something specific happen, you know, that triggered…”

His uncle, Moth knew, was always interested in the underlying why because that would help him decide the overarching what.

“No. I don’t know. Nothing. But this morning there it was as soon as I opened my eyes. It was like waking up and finding some ghost seated on the edge of the bed watching me.”

“That’s scary,” his uncle said. “But not exactly an unfamiliar ghost.” Uncle Ed paused, a psychiatrist’s delay, measuring words like a fine carpenter calculates lengths. “You think waiting until six tonight makes sense? What about an earlier meeting?”

“I have classes almost all day. I should be able-”

“That’s if you go to the classes.”

Moth stayed quiet. This was obvious.

“That’s if,” his uncle continued, “you don’t walk out of your apartment, take a sharp left, and run directly to that big discount liquor store on LeJeune Road. You know, the one with the big blinking goddamn red neon sign that every drunk in Dade County knows about. And it’s got free parking.” These last words were tinged with contempt and sarcasm.

Again, Moth said nothing. He wondered: Was that what I was going to do? There might have been a yes lurking somewhere within him that he hadn’t quite heard yet but that was getting ready to shout at him. His uncle knew all the inner conversations before they even happ ...

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