A short story for Adria Bailton written for Santa’s Secret Pen 2021 organised by the amazing A. R. Frederiksen. Thank you both. This has brought me much joy.
The lab coat hangs of the back of the door. I stare at it for an eternity. Then I shrug it on and enter the lab. The heavy door clicks shut behind me. Pressing my lips into thin hard lines, I stare down the central table, the refrigerators, the incubators, the centrifuge. I fight the anger, but my hands ball into fists at my sides still.
Don’t be so hard on him. It was an oversight. He didn’t mean it.
The words echo through my head on my way to the nearest incubator. Experiment series 27 kappa to sigma are due in half an our. I’m sure I care. I’m sorely tempted to spring them now. What difference would half an hour make?
Maybe none. Maybe just enough to screw up the results and make the whole study useless. My fingernails dig into my palms. The pain grounds me. Who would I punish with this? Shane? Somewhat. Myself? A Lot.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Too late now. Preliminary results are published already, which is the problem.
“Charin!” Shane calls out and I hate the tone of surprise in his voice.
I turn to look at him and my smile strains over my lips.
“I didn’t expect you here.”
“Oh. I’m sorry Dr Langton. I was under the impression I was still working on the project. Apologies.”
His face falls. “Charin…”
“Yes Dr Langton?” My tone is prim and proper. I can see it hurts him and that is, partly, the point of this. The other part being that I am still raging red inside.
“I am sorry,” he says softly. “I didn’t give them the material for publishing.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I agree. “And it’s an easy oversight when checking on the proof before publishing, making sure the names are all in.”
“Don’t ‘Charin’ me!” I snap. “Two year, Shane! We worked on this therapy for two bloody years. And you forget to put my name on the research?”
“I told you it was an error and I am sorry.”
“And that makes everything alright exactly how?”
Shane takes the hands from the pockets of his lab coat, fidgets and stuffs them back. “I don’t know. But I can get your name back in.”
“I know.” I sigh and run a hand over my eyes. “And how will that look? Getting your lover mentioned suddenly?
“Ex-lover,” he corrects beat.
Yeah, yeah there was that. And I wasn’t sorry the least to have thrown out his things and demanded the keys back. And maybe I missed him, sitting on my couch and playing Crash Bandicoot under the influence of whatever I had sloshed down my throat with a vengeance.
“Everybody knows you were in on this from day one,” Shane continues. “You deserve it.”
“Yes, yes I do.” I know I’ll cry if I say another word, so I push past him. I don’t bother taking of my lab coat, just pull my jacket over it and leave at a hurried pace. I deserve better. I know it. So does he. This should not have happened.
Back home I heat up the remains of yesterday’s take-out while I open the last bottle of red wine. It was a present from colleagues last Christmas at the lab party. Somehow I always ended up with wine. The cork plops out and I don’t even get a glass, pouring some of the wine straight down my throat. The taste could do with some airing, but I don’t care. Fruity undertones are great for a clandestine dinner.
The bottom of the bottle clanks down on the kitchen table. I lean on it hard and breathe until I calm down again. Then I guzzle down more of the wine until the microwave pings. I wolf down the food standing and not caring that parts of it are, at best, lukewarm. With the bottle grabbed tightly around its neck, I march into my living room, boot up the TV and PlayStation and settle down for another evening in the company of a stupid mutant bandicoot.
* * *
“Oh, come on!” Lise insists. “You can’t not come to our lab party because of this. Who’d lose at karaoke?”
I can’t say I care. I also don’t lose at karaoke. It’s not a game played for wins. My ear is just horribly off. Nobody forces my colleagues to give me enough eggnog until I agree to play.
“I really can’t.” I clasp my arms before my belly. “I feel bad thinking about it.”
“We’re all there, not just him.” She nudges me gently.
She’s right, too. But he is still trying to make up for his mistake and courts me with everything he can get away with. Which isn’t much because he’s very aware of my boundaries. But stuck in a room with him for any duration of time will give him opportunities to be kind to me. I don’t want it.
“You still work with him,” Lise prods.
“We’re on the last leg of this,” I sigh. “I can’t abandon two years of work, Lise. Could you?”
She shakes her head. “It’s up to you. But know that we will all miss you horribly.”
Another point on which Lise is correct. Still I can’t make myself go. It feels like admitting defeat, admitting that maybe, just maybe Shane has a chance to put things right.
He is trying, but there is an article out there without my name on it. And the establishment has, unsurprisingly, not taken kindly of me being inserted into the research. It’s somewhat satisfying to see Shane pulling his hair about it.
I’m putting a set of test tubes into the centrifuge when Shane takes up position opposite, both hands flat on the table.
“I can stay home, you know?”
I fasten the tubes and start up the centrifuge. “Quite right,” I agree. “I’m doing all the work here.”
“For the lab party, I mean.”
My shoulders sag. Shane loves the Christmas lab party. He’s also definitely better at karaoke. Not to mention her looks extremely dapper with those silly party hats and his face flushed from a cocktail too many. I lower my eyes to the centrifuge. “You don’t have to.”
“I know.” he smiles. It’s a little hopeful and a lot of sad.
“You love the Christmas party.”
“So do you.”
“After two cocktails and tequila shots.”
He smiles, remembering past years. “You never once complained about going.”
I bite my lip. What was I to answer to that? The truth? That I loved how excited he was? The sparkle in his brown eyes? The grin splitting his face and firm grip around my hand as he dragged me along? I snort. “Wasn’t the party per se.”
“I can avoid you all evening,” he promises.
“Look, Shane, I already made other plans.” it’s a bold lie and hurt him.
His smile freezes over, cracking like a lake freezing over too fast. “The article is going to NEJM,” his voice is very soft. “With your name attached to it.”
“Thank you.” Since he makes no sign of leaving, I do. His gaze follows me and I beat it away with the door. Hanging my lab coat onto its hanger at the door, I hole up behind my computer.
* * *
Maybe, if the mail from NEJM had arrived a little earlier, I might have gone to the Christmas lab party. But it didn’t, so I didn’t. Instead, I sat stewing over it for several nights while people kept assuring me that it hadn’t been the same without me.
Shane walks around me like on eggshells and now I know why. I still want to bash his head in. For different reasons. Well-meaning idiot he is. I am fuming quietly behind my computer and wrangle the tangled ball of my flurry emotions. On the one hand, I want nothing more than to accept the article as offered. My anger demands it. On the other hand – I bury my head in my hands.
“So, NEJM coming up for you, I hear.” Lise approaches me with a proud grin.
“Yeah. It’s just,” I realise she can read my mails fine from where she stands.
“Well, well well,” she half sings. “Somebody is trying really hard, huh?”
I sigh. “He’s an idiot.”
“I’m not going to debate that,” she laughs. “Times were you liked his shenanigans.”
I shrug non-committal.
“Anyway, you will come to my New Year’s party, right?” Lise leans over my back, draping her arms over my shoulders. “I already convinced everybody else with catering and JJ will bring actual champagne from his sister’s vineyard in France.”
“How much?” I ask, just to be saying something.
“20 for food, if you wanna give more, quality will go up.” She clasps her arms before my throat and presses her cheek against mine. “You have to come. I already told everybody. Charin will come, I say, they’re not as much of a party pooper as you think they are. And their karaoke is beyond compare. A choir of angels-“
“-can’t get the hapless mewling out of your ears,” she finishes unfazed. “Also, I have a balcony overlooking the city, Charin. Fireworks.” She rubs her cheek against mine.
She knows my weak point and exploits it. Sharing a circle of friends with Shane was a blessing, now it is a curse. I can see Shane, offering to stay away again. I can’t have this dictate my whole life. I sigh. “You’ll be having your own fireworks, too?”
“Maybe.” I can feel her grin on my skin. “With the view it never was necessary as yet. You can see absolutely everybody, down to the beech and the city has aerial fireworks every year.”
I close my eyes and breathe out slowly. Tickets or good seats for that one are difficult to obtain. Shane managed last year. It was glorious, even though he had to rent the presidential suite of Helden House nestled into the rock over the town.
The memory rises up my spine like a tide, engulfing me as had his arms and the gentle rocking of his breath against my back as we watched, flutes of the cheapest sparkling wine the hotel had to offer in our hands.
“Maybe,” I say and try to shake the memories of red and gold flashing behind my eyes.
“That’s a yes then.” Lise pecks me on the cheek. “I knew you’d see sense.
I sigh, beat and hand over the money for catering. Then I return my eyes to the monitor that still shows my acceptance for NEJM and asks me to okay the article. “How do I tell Shane he’s a humongous idiot?”
Lise thinks for a moment. “In person,” she finally says. “Definitely, in person.”
I’m not sure how I will achieve that. But there’s still time. I hit send on the mail and close the program. The lab closes between Christmas and New Years. There’s still some clean up to do. After sorting my desk, I decided to give the lab a last look.
The last batch of experiments have run their course. I stand in the laboratory, even more pristine and sterile than usual. Everything is cleaned, scrubbed, polished and put away. I scan the room for anything untidy, but for one, everything is in its place.
Shane finds me contemplating the cleanliness and I remember what Lise told me. “Your the bloody biggest fucking idiot I know.”
His smile is uncertain. “You’re still mad at me.”
“I am, and I am mad at you again.”
“I can’t win, huh?” Shane reaches out – steps to a familiar dance – and retracts his hands with a rueful grin.
“I am hurt.”
“I know.” He looks at his hands for a moment. “And I know I can’t unhurt you. So I’m doing what I can to be better. Not very successful, am I?”
I shake my head and avoid his gaze. “I want to run amok whenever I think about it. It just doesn’t stop.”
“Give it time.”
He consults his wrist as if he wore a watch. “Six weeks is not very long.”
I want to bury my head in my hands again. If this wasn’t the last day at work, I’d have run. But once I leave, there’s no coming back and I need to leave everything behind neat. This would definitely be easier if Shane wasn’t around and I could hate him in peace.
Instead he insisted on being kind and understanding and reminding me that he was still there, in case, just in case. And I appreciated that in concept. It didn’t lessen the utter rage crawling up my throat whenever I thought about that article published about our project without my name on it.
Time, my ass.
“So what do you suggest?” I want to know.
“I don’t know. But I know you.” His smile is nostalgic. “And you always found a way to handle your emotions. I trust you.”
That made one of us. “This is different,” I object. This – I don’t know, Shane. It burns me alive.”
“You’re stronger than that, and you’ll outlast it.” He gives me an encouraging smile and leaves me in the white of our lab.
* * *
After six days in my own company and that of a few pixel people, attending Lise’s party sounds like the best idea ever. Holing up for Christmas was not as much fun as expected. Also, everybody else is visiting family and talking about the wonderful time they have seeing friends and exchanging presents in the warm glow of candles.
I barely mind that Shane would be there. Not seeing him did wonders for the white rage lurking in my gut. So I got the good shoes out, gelled my hair into place and made my way through town, up to the hillside where Lise lived. It was one of the more glitzy parts of town. Once upon a time, Shane and I had wondered whether we could afford moving here if we moved together.
Since I don’t want to run into Shane more than absolutely necessary, I arrive fashionably late. It means that the buffet is already half eaten, but JJ had brought a complete pyramid of champagne and pours liberally. It’s very sparkly and a little sour. I nibble on my canapés and mingle, while I try not to look out for where Shane is in the room. I would not waste energy on avoiding him.
I needn’t have worried.
Shane keeps his distance. Even if I wanted, I couldn’t run into him by chance. It is assuring and disappointing.
“Ready for another year?” Lise asks and presses a full champagne flute into my hand.
“Do I have a choice?” I ask back.
“Time travel has crappy funding, but give it a try, by all means.” She giggles and I shake my head.
“Will you have fireworks yourself, or is it purely watching?” I don’t want to go out and set fire on things that go whee into the sky. The plan is to retire quietly to a balcony and watch. People are exhausting.
“I got a little,” Lise admits. “But we’ll burn it nicely away from my balconies, so you solitary party poopers don’t have to fear for your noses.”
“Or eyes. Or ears.” I embrace her. “Thank you.”
“You are very welcome.” She pulls me close. “We missed you at Christmas, Char. Karaoke is not the same without you.”
“Easy on the ears, you mean.”
She laughs and touches our foreheads together. “Don’t let him push you from our spaces.”
“I won’t,” I promise. “I’d just prefer not to accidentally burn said spaces down in a fit. It’ll get better. I promise.”
“Good.” She pushes back. “And if you want to burn things, we’re back around and down the driveway.” She winks over her shoulder as she leaves, gaining a train of guests towards the door.
I stay behind, the only one to do so. For a moment I want to mind, but blessed solitude awaits. Rolling the stem of the flute between my fingers before setting it down on a sideboard, I make my way through the now empty living room. The balcony runs along the whole side of the house and is broad enough so I could stretch and not reach the wall or railing with fingers and toes.
I lean on the metal rail and check the time. Two minutes to midnight. The others are laughing in the night not far away. A few bangers go off prematurely and the air starts to smell of gunpowder and burnt paper. I inhale deeply. Once a year I enjoy this scent – fire and hope. I don’t need a clock to count down. Fireworks start scattered in the distance, puncturing the held breath of time. Then the night exploded into sparkling colour and loud cheer.
“Happy New Year.” Shane steps onto the balcony behind me. When I turn, he hands me a glass of champagne.
I take it unthinking. “Happy New Year. Don’t expect me to kiss you.”
He laughs, the low sound almost drowning in the noise of the fireworks. “Fair point.”
I turn back to the glittering lights of the city, outshone by the fireworks spreading over the sky.
Shane comes to stand beside me. He leans on this elbows on the railing, holding his glass with both hands. “Now this went better than expected?”
“How so?” I down half the champagne in one big gulp.
“I’m standing right next to you and you have not thrown me off the balcony.”
“Yet.” He toasts me with a smile. “It’s a long year. You have time.”
I sigh and empty the champagne flute in a second draught. “Don’t tempt me.”
He scoots closer until our arms touch. His body-heat seeps under my skin painfully familiar. “You still like me.”
“Doesn’t mean I forgive you.”
He grins. “I have time.”
Shane looks from my face to his glass and the fireworks. His face becomes serious when he turns back to me. “If needs be.”
“Yeah, well.” I pick the champagne from his hand and empty the glass in silence.”
“Yeah.” Shane leans his shoulder against mine and twirls the empty glass between his fingers. “Well.”