(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previous: The Green Room)
He fled to his secret cabin in the northwestern corner of the state — only a few miles away from Sassafras, near the rugged tree-lined fringe of Pickens County where only a handful of locals owned a Samsung Surrounder. Nobody there was interested in the latest tech and, due to the dormant evangelical plurality, most were deeply offended by all the carnal exhibitionism, which was largely practiced in huge cities: places more ideal for total strangers to fuck in public places and disappear. But could he disappear in the mountains? He had rented a Subaru Forester, a fugly compact SUV that had somehow eluded the eco-friendly legislative avengers curtailing damn near anything contributing to carbon emission largesse. With its dumpy angles and gaudy grays, the Subaru Forester was a car so aesthetically hideous that nobody on the road could bring themselves to look at it. Even the gun-loving snipers hiding in the mountains couldn’t summon the desire to fire off shots while slamming back tallboys. Anyone with even a partial vista of the road pitied any sad bastard was driving this car of all cars. The overworked Subaru engineers had so badly botched the design (conspiracy theorists in online car forums had suggested that this eyesore was a deliberate inside job) that it didn’t surprise anyone when the University of Missouri published a study in 2026 concluding that the car owners doling out monthly payments on Foresters were the ones most likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
Rob Rollins wasn’t depressed exactly. Most people lost their will to live after three days of driving a Forester. But he was greatly unnerved. He drove up the winding potholed two-lane highway of US-178 (why hadn’t the road reform pork that he helped to get passed been consummated yet?) with a pit in his washboard chest. And he knew that he wouldn’t be found because the Subaru Forester was a vehicle he wouldn’t be caught dead in. Now he was being murdered by the press — though not in the more decisive and corporeal way that the Cherokees had been brutally slaughtered by British and American colonialists in this region only centuries before. He hoped that some reckless yahoo wouldn’t collide into him on US-178. In some ways, it was more painful imagining that he could be discovered driving this car rather than the vicious rumors of his involvement with Van Kleason.
The one thing he couldn’t let anyone see was how much all this hurt him. The onslaught of think pieces and media dissections and fledgling investigations had been merciless. Videos of Rollins berating his clients had bubbled up on YouTube and TikTok. He had mended these fences before with discreet hush money and the ruthless enforcement of NDAs, but now the degree to which a gym authority tortured his underlings had become a hot topic at cocktail parties. And those who stood against tough luck aligned themselves with those who protested fat shaming. And then the disabled community, the voting bloc that he and Debbie had so smartly cultivated, turned against him. Not even the Republican National Committee would support him. “Tough it up, Rob,” they said. “It’s not like you’re Dennis Hastert. It will pass.” But he didn’t think it would. Now he was on the cusp of getting canceled, his political career (and possibly his stature as a fitness guru) barreling forward in a car with bad brakes towards a dead end sign at the edge of that cliff signaling reality.
He had come to the “cabin” — the one he co-owened with his brother, who also wasn’t talking with him — to wait it out. It seemed unwise to pop up in the public eye in any way.
Would this go away? He had only been hustling on the Beltway for five years and, even though he wasn’t very bright, he was cognizant enough to understand that the public had an attention span shorter than an Alzheimer’s patient trying to recall why he had wanted to strangle the nurse who stopped him from sprinkling salt on his baked potato. The throngs would surely move onto fresher meat. The next main character. Real villains. Celebrities rather than politicians. But they hadn’t. His notifications blew up. And he turned his phone off. But not before one last call.
He asked Debbie for the latest Quinnipiac poll numbers and the results were decidedly not in his favor. He had three years left to serve in the Senate. And he wasn’t sure if he was going to be forced to resign over this. After years of extremist rhetoric, the red waves weren’t arriving. And so the GOP was cleaning house even as many of their baleful brand ambassadors openly fucked in the cloakrooms in the House.
Ali Breslin had linked this junior Senator from South Carolina to a sinister sex trafficking ring that involved some writer named Paul Van Kleason and many prominent authors. But he had never known Paul. He had only trained Sophie. He deeply regretted the texts he had sent to those who skipped their training appointments, the bills he had demanded Sophie pay to the Rollins Institute after she became paralyzed. But a contract was a contract, right?
During the first two chilly nights in the cabin, Rollins shivered beneath a three thousand thread count comforter on a feather bed — even after the twelve mile runs and the three hour calisthentics workouts that he had hoped would calm him. But no amount of burpees or pull exercises could untrouble his mind. He was implicated. Breslin had somehow pieced together his client roster from 2022 and discovered that half of his acolytes had some connection with Sophie. It didn’t help that five-year-old videos were resurfacing on EveryoneFucks.com and that Redditors were putting together intricate spreadsheets. And somehow it all lead back to him. But, unlike that dead creepy writer David Fitzroy, he hadn’t fucked any goats and he had no desire to. He certainly hadn’t been involved in sex trafficking. Had not the anti-trafficking bills that he co-sponsored proved his bona-fides?
And because of Ali Breslin — who had managed to get enough right for a persuasive book, but who was also an expert at insinuating something without inviting libel suits — sixteen women claimed that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Rollins. They had only their stories, not hard evidence. And they were believed. This was, however, quite impossible for deeply personal reasons. Several political strategists (and even a few sleazy lobbyists) had cornered him in the Russell Building, asking Rollins why he wasn’t married. And he had laughed off their inquiries with some harmless locker room humor about how much a woman stood in the way of being a self-made success. Which put a target on his back and unleashed the indignation of febrile Jezebel readers. But why him? Sure, he had been gruff at times, but his closest advisor was a woman and he had tried to walk the tightrope by upholding with the GOP’s regressive values without coming across as a misogynistic asshole. He was one of the few Republicans who had voted with the Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade. Sure, it was a calculated move to appeal to independents and secure his Senatorial victory. But didn’t that count for something? Especially when the vote happened not long after Steve Scalise had fired a gun in the House chamber during an unhinged stump speech for the Second Amendment?
He had become obsessed with the physical ideal because of one deep secret that only Debbie Ballard and his brother knew about. As a fitness instructor, he had adopted his fiery tyranny because he didn’t want anyone to know the truth. If you scared them, they wouldn’t ask questions. They’d be too paralyzed by fear to poke into your private life. If they held you up as a god, the hero worship would guarantee their incuriousity. That was the other part of the ideal he liked. Not so much the hubris, but the insulation from scrutiny. And Debbie had told him that staying closeted was ridiculous because there were so many openly gay Republicans these days. Sexuality had become so translucent that public sex was now respectable, with kinky activity once confined to sex clubs now regularly practiced at tony townhouses.
But he couldn’t allow this to be out in the open. It was a matter of principle. It was a matter of pride. It was ultimately what kept him a conservative. And it was also the quality that kept Debbie around far longer than he had anticipated. A pitiful quality that had inspired her to discover herself and find true love with another woman.
And it was why he had cut loose Atticus just before running for Congress. Atticus. Such a beautiful and patient man. His hands were so graceful in the way they flattened homemade Phyllo dough into razor-thin squares and the slow and delicate way that he raised a cup of chamomile tea to his rich beautiful lips. Atticus was the only person whom he could be himself with. And he had been cruel, so cruel, in the way that he had sent all of his stray knick-knacks to his apartment with a peremptory note telling him to never contact him again. Because Atticus had never raised his voice. Atticus knew how to calm him down. Atticus, much like his literary namesake, was too honorable to go public. And he wondered what Atticus was thinking right now as the media machine still roared loud and long to distract everyone from the dying dregs of America.
The mountain air spilled from the open door into the cabin’s modest living room and Rollins felt a goosebump tremor upon his bronzed biceps as he stared at the empty wicker chair where Atticus had once sat and laughed. A chair that nobody had been allowed to sit in for the last five years and that he ordered the cleaning lady to pay extra attention to. He closed his eyes and thought of their schoolboy makeout sessions, Atticus’s reliable gentleness, the limber arm Atticus placed so lovingly around his shoulder when he opened himself up to him and told him, and only him, about the cruel kids who had singled him out for the modest flab on his belly in seventh grade and had made him so determined to never have so much as an ounce of fat on his body so long as he walked this mortal earth.
Maybe the Van Kleason scandal was the best thing that could have happened to him. Maybe he needed to be humbled. Maybe he could start over. He truly had not expected to build an empire or to rise up as rapidly as he had. But here in the cabin, he was anonymous, invisible. It was here, and only here, that he found the greatest peace.
There was a knock.
Rollins opened his eyes and abandoned his reverie.
Bill Flogaast stood in the open doorway, the great amber flood of the setting sun casting a piercing backlight against this shadow from the past.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Flogaast.
“How did you know about this place?”
“Come on, Rob. I know everything. I know shit about people that would truly surprise you.”
“I haven’t seen you in a while. I thought you were retired. Rhode Island, right?”
“From time to time, I am summoned out of my forced retirement.”
Flogaast sauntered slowly into the room, studying the print of Riding Bikes hanging on the rustic wall.
“Rauschenberg! Well, that’s a bit wild for a Republican.”
“What can I say? I like bicycles.”
“But, Rob, I know you’re a gym rat, but I’ve somehow never seen you on a bike.”
Rollins recalled the Sunday afternoons with Atticus. The joyful bike rides to Sassafras.
“It’s only up here. I have three mountain bikes in the shed.”
“You know, I met him once.”
“Bob Rauschenberg. I’ve met quite a lot of people. That’s what happens when you’re in publicity.”
Flogaast walked to the wicker chair and began to sit down.
Rollins stood up.
“Don’t!” he squeaked. “Don’t sit there.”
“Well, why not?”
“That chair has, uh, sentimental value.”
“That’s fine. I should probably stand anyway. The drive was thirteen hours, all told. I tried you in DC. But you weren’t there for some reason.”
“So you came here.”
“It wasn’t too much trouble. You see, when someone you hold dear leaves you, you’re left with an empty place that you need to fill. It takes years, sometimes half a lifetime, to learn how to live with yourself.”
“Patricia left you?”
“Yes. And a long road trip usually gives you time to ruminate. To summon gratitude. To fill in gaps. Gaps reflected by the territory filled in by the rest areas and the roadside diners that remind you that everything that is on the map is populated. But I don’t know if you’d know anything about that. I’ve, uh, never seen you with a special someone.”
“That’s my business, not yours.”
Flogaast stretched out his arms and yawned.
“So sorry. I’m not a young man anymore and these long drives, as useful as they are, tucker me out sometimes.”
Flogaast walked to a small shelf of books that was mounted on the wall right next to the fireplace.
“I didn’t know you were a reader,” he said with genuine surprise.
Flogaast rubbed the spines with his index fingers.
“He was one of my authors. She was one of my authors. And oh! What’s this?”
He pulled the paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the shelf.
“Harper Lee,” said Flogaast. “I’ve read this four times. Are you more of a Scout man? Or an Atticus man?”
“An Atticus man! I thought so!”
“Why the hell did you come here?”
“Because, my dear Senator, you are in a lot of trouble. And I know that you can easily get out of this trouble. In fact, you’d be easily exonerated. But you chose not to. Which is a bit strange from a man who Time Magazine once called a rising star in the Republican Party.”
“I have my reasons.”
“I have a hunch that it has something to do with this book and maybe even this wicker chair that you won’t let me sit in. I think you’re a secret reader, if you catch my drift.”
“What are you implying?”
Flogaast sat on the couch and leaned in very close to the Senator.
“Rob, I want to help you. But you’re going to have to help me first.”
(Next: The Public Eye)
(Word count: 31,219/50,000)