What Would You Do If Your Best Friend Told You They're Starting A Cult?

Alex McElroy's cult novel The Atmospherians is the BuzzFeed Book Club July read. Here's the first chapter.

We're so excited to announce Alex McElroy's dazzling debut novel, The Atmospherians, as the BuzzFeed Book Club July read. In its slightly off-kilter universe, Sasha Marcus, founder of a beloved women's wellness brand, is dealing with the aftermath of a huge scandal. Read about it in the first chapter, below.

To celebrate, we're collaborating with Atria Books and Libro.fm to give away 10 signed copies and 5 free audiobooks — and, for one lucky winner, a swag bag with cover-themed earrings. Enter here!

The men were outside my building: Four of them, ruddy, dressed in camou- flage shorts. Hooded sweatshirts bulging over their bellies. They were hairy and amphibian-eyed, their skin Styrofoam white, banana-thick fingers waving homemade signs. On one was a pixelated printout of my face centered inside the crosshairs of a rifle. JUSTICE FOR LUCAS DEVRY and REGISTER HER in wet red paint — hopefully paint — were smeared across the others.

The death threats had begun two weeks ago — emails and phone calls and scissor-snipped letters. These men, though, were the first to show up in person. I blanched at the first sight of them. Instead of making myself available to them, I should have stayed inside. That was the right thing to do. The safe thing to do. But a night drinking vodka alone on my couch had buried a spike in my skull, and the next morning I needed a coffee. It was February in Hoboken; winter had sunk its fingers deep into the month. I left the building in my bulkiest clothes — black parka and jeans, no makeup, sunglasses, hair bullied inside a beanie — hoping the men wouldn’t recognize me.

Of course they swarmed me on the sidewalk, shouting Murderer, Nazi, Misandrist, Hag— and Fancy Lady, which hovered uncomfortably close to a compliment. I sprinted across the street without looking and was nearly flattened by a mail truck. The men trailed me into the nearest coffee shop. They huddled at the door, pointing me out to the entering customers: “See that woman? In black? Dark brown hair? She’s the woman who murdered Lucas Devry.”

The cashier said: “He was a pastor.”

The cashier said: “A father of three.”

The cashier said: “A man of goodness and God.”

I said: nothing.

The cashier wouldn’t serve me. The men chased me back to my building but paused at the entrance like dogs barking at the edge of a cliff. I collapsed onto my couch. My phone buzzed in my parka pocket. Another threat, I figured, but my boss’s name showed on the screen.

“We love you, Sasha,” she said. “You’re a model employee. You exceeded every expectation we had for you. But the restaurant cannot employ a killer.”

“You can’t fire someone for their personal choices. That’s discrimination.”

“Half the staff has threatened to quit. I had to unplug the phone — we’re getting thousands of false reservations. I’m getting death threats, ultimatums.”

“You think I’m not getting death threats?”

“They know the names of my children.”

On the sidewalk, the men chanted: Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

“So you’re abandoning me? Tossing me overboard to the sharks?” I made grotesque sucking and biting sounds. “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of the sharks eating me whole.”

“You’ve been like a daughter to me,” she said.

“That’s terrifying.” I hung up.

I hosted at an elite midwestern fusion restaurant in Lower Manhattan called Gravee. Our customers were posh Wall Street executives looking to clog their arteries with elegant revisions of cheese curds and funnel cakes. Fair fare for the 1 percent. My job was more model than host: I presented an image of beauty and health to contrast the consequences of eating our food. The work was demoralizing, deflating, and yes, I should have quit months ago.

But the pay cushioned my actual job: an online skin-care and wellness regimen called ABANDON. Six years of work had gone into the program. Two weeks ago, at my peak, I had nearly 1 million followers; 25,217 paying subscribers. After overhead costs, this amounted to a dollar a subscriber, too little money to live on and no sponsorships to supplement my income. For, unlike my peers, I was anti-sponsorship. My program helped clients eliminate products that dam- aged not only their skin but their psyche. I taught refusal, relaxation, and patience: There was power in doing nothing; nothing required discipline, clarity, love. This resonated with people tired of being told what to buy, what they needed to do, how many times to apply something every morning and night. I appeared on a major morning show. Managers and publicists exhausted my inbox, desperate to work for me. My message was simple — and spreading.

That is until Lucas Devry clawed into my life. He tagged me in his live-streamed suicide. “Here is the world you wanted,” he said, tapping the gun on his chin. He sat at his kitchen table. Family portraits hung askew on the blue-wallpapered wall at his back. I had responded sharply to one of his comments; he took this to mean I wanted him dead. “You’re a murderer, Sasha,” he said. “You made me do this.”

And people believed him. First, right-wingers and Men’s Rights Activists and Republican politicians — men hunting for cases of misandrist violence — then other influencers, my friends, my boyfriend, my clients, paying subscribers: They fell from me like clumps of hair from a scalp.

Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

“I didn’t do anything to you!” I shouted at my window. I flipped them off through the glass. They hooted and whooped, pleased by my displeasure.

I called Cassandra Hanson — my former business partner, my best friend in the industry— hoping she might answer out of pity. She declined midway through the third ring. I tried my ex, Blake Dayes, and made it all the way to his voicemail. Before I could leave a message, his publicist texted: Please respect Blake’s privacy during this difficult time.

Difficult?! I texted Blake. This can’t be difficult for you.

Go bug Dyson, he answered. He always put up with your shit.

Go exploit our relationship to boost your career, I texted. Followed by three middle-finger emojis.

Dyson: my oldest and steadiest friend. He of unconditional love, he who would assure me that everything was fine, he who would tell my boss and Blake and Cassandra and the men on the sidewalk all to go jump off a cliff. But it seemed like cheating to call him — I wanted to earn encouragement, for someone who no longer liked me to lift me out of the dirt. Once it became clear that no such person would emerge, I dialed Dyson’s number. He didn’t answer. I called him again and again and again and again and again and again.

Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

That afternoon, four new protestors relieved the men and stood near my window. I watched this afternoon crew watching me, and I hoped that they might show signs of exhaustion or boredom. But they chanted with the vigor of the rested.

When not watching them I watched myself: I tracked my follower count. I had plummeted to the high hundreds over two weeks; with every refresh, twenty more followers would vanish. “Good riddance,” I said, as if they were stowaways heaved off a boat, as if I wouldn’t have begged them to come back.

I texted Dyson. I emailed him. I DMed him. I tagged him. I called his child- hood home, but a new family’s child picked up. “Why won’t he answer my calls?” I asked the child. The child handed the phone to his parents.

Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

The thought of fleeing my apartment flitted into my head and then out. There was nowhere to go. My parents were out of my life. I had no siblings. So I stayed put. Peering out my windows, buzzing in deliverymen who left my food in the stairwell — as I’d instructed — burning through savings, watching daytime TV, waiting for the world to forget me, for the men outside to disperse.

Late one morning in April, two months after the first men had arrived, an eviction notice was slid under my door. My presence was causing undue stress to the other tenants. They had grown tired of the protestors. The restraining orders I filed never bore out — because I didn’t even know the men’s names. The super called the police, but the protestors knew their rights: The sidewalks were public; the men never obstructed pedestrian traffic. And they knew the police. In fact, some of them probably were police, trading shifts at the precinct for shifts at my building, badges tucked in their jeans.

My neighbors’ distress didn’t surprise me. This was New Jersey, after all, home to the insecure and impressionable. Jersey was a land of lacking, the slow- footed little sibling to Manhattan: always never enough. My neighbors were tame, small-hearted gentrifiers who cared deeply about property value. Middle-aged men protesting their building eroded the image they had sought to cultivate and present. I was lucky I’d been able to stay as long as I had.

Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

“You won!” I yelled at my window.

Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!

Someone knocked on my door. I tightened my arms over my chest. “Who is it?” I asked, too softly for the knocker to hear. Another knock: faster, heavier. I imagined thick-wristed movers lugging my stuff to a dumpster. Or worse: the protestors had entered the building, and now they would drag me by my feet through the halls. The knocking intensified to pounding, then unbearable beating.

I flung open the door. “Take everything! I don’t deserve any of it!” After two months alone, resentment and fear had made me prone to exclamations of woe.

On the other side of the door was a flame, and beneath it a single pink candle, beneath the candle a carnival cupcake, and beneath the cupcake two cupped hands. It was Dyson.

“Happy Twenty-Ninth,” he said. More than a year had passed since we’d seen each other — dinner, two Christmases ago — and his slenderness startled me. Veins terrained his arms. His neck was like a delicate branch. Under his familiar freckles, his cheeks appeared melon-balled, milky. Between his teeth pistoned peppermint gum so potent it made my nose tingle. His brown hair was buzzed to the scalp — so unlike the precisely styled, expensive haircuts he had worn in L.A. — which gave him a farm-boyish beauty, haunted, naïve. He wore a thick white T-shirt, dark jeans, no belt, and black Pumas — a picture of contrived effortlessness.

He was the last person I wanted to see, and the only person I wanted to see.

I licked my fingers, then snuffed the flame of the candle with them. “You’re two days late.”

“So you’re not inviting me in.”

I hammered a fist on his chest. “I’ll invite you in when you answer my calls.”

“Let me in and I’ll explain.”

“Explain what? That you’re done with me? Like everyone else? I already know that, Dyson. You’ve made that perfectly clear.”

He set the cupcake down in the hallway, laid his hands on my shoulders. “Oh, Sasha,” he said. It had been months since I’d heard my name spoken with tenderness. His hands slipped from my shoulders to my back and I wrapped my arms around him, ran a finger up the mountain range of his spine. The last person I had hugged was Cassandra — a goodbye hug before I taped an interview — and I’d spent the intervening months despondent over her refusal to see me. As I held Dyson and was held by him, my animosity loosened and fell like a towel to the floor.

I tidied the apartment: gathering clamshell to-go boxes stacked into a tower, dusty clusters of hair, sticky forks strewn over the floor. There was a smell, too, though I couldn’t smell it. Dyson described it as socky. Later, he told me he had nearly buckled from sadness upon seeing my situation. Perhaps he expected me to greet him how I began my ABANDON videos: perched in front of a blank white wall, hands clasped on a cedar table, wearing leggings and a racerback tank, my cheeks pillowy, hair straightened, my smile bright and unstainable: Welcome back. But isolation had made me shaky and foul. My hair, naturally straight, stretched to just under my clavicle and shined from going unwashed. Loose, food-splattered clothes — a torn Disney T-shirt and pajama bottoms — hung from my quivering frame. My nostrils were encrusted. My arms were splotchy and pale after two sunless months. I was embarrassed by myself. Dyson warned me he couldn’t stay here much longer.

“We need to get going,” he said.

“Going where?”

“I sent you an email.”

“You didn’t.” I refreshed my email hundreds of times a day, hoping someone I’d once been important to — Cassandra or Blake or Dyson — would reach out to tell me they loved me, were thinking of me, and maybe offer me work. But my inbox never held anything but knives. Harassers had begun veiling their death threats in subjects like Employment Opportunity and Wonderful Kittens and Ca$h 4 U Now.

Dyson said, “When you didn’t respond, I was convinced you hated me. But I thought: If you answer the door at eleven AM on a Tuesday, then it’s fated. And here you are. Think of everything you could’ve been doing.”

“Crying,” I said. “Watching reruns of game shows.”

“But you were home,” he said, as if no one had ever been home. “That means something. More than our little minds can truly comprehend.”

His speech reminded me of Cassandra’s meditations scripts: cheerfully empty, mindlessly mindful. “I’m done with mindful people,” I told him.

“Me, too,” he said. “Mindfulness is the swamp of aspiring quacks. Where I am — where you’re gonna be — is so far beyond mindfulness it’s a crime to even compare them.”

“Is it a crime to explain to me what you mean?”

“Long explanation or short explanation?” he asked.

“Some explanation.” I pinched my fingers together. “Even this much.”

“Promise you’ll come with me.”

“Just tell me.”

“You promise?”

The men sang We don’t want no / Sasha Marcus to the tune of Pink Floyd’s "Another Brick in the Wall.”

I promised.

“Good,” he said. “Because me and you: we’re starting a cult.” ●

Excerpted from THE ATMOSPHERIANS by Alex McElroy, published with permission from publisher Atria Books.

Topics in this article

Skip to footer