The Absence of Intellect – Six

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It was about a four block walk from the Blue Line station to Emily’s house and the night was nice, so she didn’t mind. She’d walked in terrible weather plenty of times, but there was a slight breeze and it was still a little cool so she took her time. There was a sandwich shop on Roscoe that within walking distance of her place, and she decided to take a detour.

“Hey, Emily,” the girl behind the counter said. “You made it just in time, I was about to turn the sign over. We still have some of our famous chicken salad left if you’re interested.”

“That sounds fantastic, Jenny,” Emily said. “Can I just get whatever you have left? I’ve got some ridiculously good bread at home and I can have the rest of it for lunch tomorrow.” Jenny nodded and produced a plastic container and what looked like an ice cream scoop.

“There’s not quite a pint here,” she said as Emily swung her backpack around to the front and unzipped it to get out her wallet. “Is that okay? I won’t charge you for the whole pint.”

“Sure,” Emily said, digging in the front pocket. She frowned as her fingers found pens, a flashlight, a paper-wrapped straw, but not her wallet. “Jenny, I think I left my wallet at home,” she sighed. “Of all the stupid things to do. How did I manage to have my transit pass and not my wallet?”

“You’re the doctor, you tell me.” Jenny scooped the chicken salad out of the dish anyway and packed it up. “Here, just take it. Otherwise it’s going to go to waste.” She handed the container across the counter and Emily took it from her.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Emily said. “If it’s not home, I might have dropped it at the university and I do not want to go back out there tonight. I promise I’ll come back and pay for it.”

“Don’t worry about it. You come in here enough, you deserve a little treat. Now scram. I want to close up and go home.” She came around the counter and walked with Emily to the door. “Be careful out there, there are a lot of weirdos.”

“That’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Emily said as she left, turning so she was backing out. “Who even says ‘scram’ anymore?” In response, Jenny stuck out her tongue and closed the door, then flipped the CLOSED sign over and turned off the lights.

Seeing Jenny and getting a free dinner almost made up for her missing wallet, so she couldn’t make herself be too upset. She could picture her wallet on her dining room table and had every confidence that she’d walk in and find it waiting for her. What she didn’t expect when she came around the corner was the fire department in front of her house.

“What the hell?” Emily broke into a run. There were firefighters tromping around her house and she grabbed the nearest one. “What happened?”

“Fire in the left side of the building. Not sure what caused it yet, we’re still trying to determine whether or not it’s safe.” He looked at Emily. “I get the feeling you’re the next door neighbor.” She nodded and he pointed at the roof. “I don’t know how much fire damage you’ve got in there, but almost everything is soaked.”

“My cat!” A sick feeling gripped Emily. She hadn’t had the cat long enough to trust that it wouldn’t run away with its kittens if it was in danger, and she was relieved when the fireman smiled.

“We took her to a vet,” he said. “We went in looking for you and found the cat. Sent her and her babies to the vet just to be checked over. They’re fine as far as I know.”

“Thank god,” Emily said with a sigh. “I guess I’m going to have to go to a hotel for the night. I’ll just run in there and grab my wallet and some other stuff and get out of your way.” She started to go around the fireman, who grabbed her arm.

“You can’t go in there, we’re still working.”

“Are you serious? Where am I supposed to stay?” Before the fireman could answer, another member of his team motioned for him to come over. He went to join him, leaving Emily standing helplessly at the curb.

Without a wallet, Emily wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go. She didn’t have many friends, and the ones she had weren’t likely to have room for her. An idea came to her and she smiled as she turned around and took out her phone. She had already initiated the call before she could stop herself and held her breath.

“Hello?” Hunter’s voice filled her with relief and she smiled.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s Emily. Sorry to call like this, but I’m kind of in a weird situation.” She looked over her shoulder at her townhouse. “There was a fire at my neighbors’ place and mine was damaged. I need a place to stay and I wasn’t sure who else to call.”

“Of course,” Hunter said without a moment’s hesitation. “You’re more than welcome at my house, I’ve got plenty of room. I’ll text you the address.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She hung up and started walking back to the train station, glancing down at her phone when it vibrated. Hunter’s address was over in Forest Glen and she smiled. It wouldn’t take too long to get there on the Brown Line and she’d be able to figure out what to do about her house the next day without worrying about how much the hotel was going to be costing her.

While she was riding the train, it occurred to her that she didn’t have the chargers for her watch or her phone. She sighed and leaned her head on the window, looking down at the chicken salad. At least she had something she could bring to Hunter’s place. She couldn’t help feeling a little strange about the whole thing. Even though she’d worked at Apogee Labs for a little more than three years, the most contact she’d had with Hunter Chambers until a month ago was seeing him speak at a few conferences, and now she was going to his house.

She zoned out on the bus, watching the concrete of the city give way to the trees and expensive single-family houses that were hardly ever seen in the city. Before she’d moved into the townhome to save money, she’d lived in a gorgeous condo in the Loop and got used to buildings all around her and never quite being in complete darkness. There were no trains clattering across the tracks, no people arguing about baseball, just the smell of grass and leaves when she got off the bus and started walking toward the address Hunter had given her. His house was in view when her phone rang and Emily looked down to see that it was Hunter. She put the phone to her ear and smiled.

“Hi, Dr. Chambers,” she said. “I haven’t gotten lost.”

“I was just a little worried,” he said. “It’s been almost forty minutes since you called, and I realized I didn’t know where you lived. Or that you’d told me and I’d forgotten.”

“Off Roscoe. The buses get a little busy on Friday nights, so I had to wait.” She came up the walk to his house and pushed open the gate.

“You took the train? Stay where you are, and I’ll come pick you up.”

“No need,” Emily said, walking up the steps and ringing his bell. “I’m already here.” She waited for Hunter to open the door, still holding his phone to his ear. “Hi,” she said, raising a hand and wiggling her fingers.

“Hi,” he replied, hanging up the phone and putting it in his pocket. Emily noticed that even though it was almost ten o’clock, he was still wearing the suit he’d worn to work. “Glad you made it safely. I was getting worried about you. I checked my call history, it’s been forty minutes since you called.” He stepped aside and motioned for her to come in.

“Thanks,” Emily said, deciding not to acknowledge that he was once again repeating himself. “This was definitely not how I planned my Friday night.”

“It’s a good thing you weren’t home,” Hunter said, closing the door behind her. “You might have gotten hurt in the fire. Come on, I’ll show you where you can put your bag.” He led her to the stairs and Emily followed, looking around the house as she did. It looked like it had been recently renovated, or possibly that his housekeeper did a really good job.

“You have a beautiful home,” Emily said as she joined him at the top of the stairs. “My place is a lot more cluttered.”

“Ever since my daughter moved out, it’s just been me living here. I don’t make much of a mess, except in the kitchen.” They walked down to the end of the hall and Hunter opened a door. “This is the guest room. It’s not as nice as my daughter’s room but she has a habit of dropping by, and it would be hard to explain why there’s a strange woman in her bed.”

“It’s perfect,” Emily said with a smile. She set the chicken salad on the dresser and dropped her backpack on the chair in the corner. “I’m just happy to have a place to sleep. There was a decent chance I’d be sleeping on a train running the Loop.”

“I’m glad you called,” Hunter said. “Is that all you have with you? A backpack and tuna salad?

“It’s chicken salad,” Emily said, picking up the container again. “And yes, this is all. I’m just glad I went home and changed into jeans. If I had to spend the rest of my weekend in a skirt and heels I’d probably have one hell of a public tantrum by Saturday night.”

“Then I’m glad you went home,” Hunter said. “We’re having dinner tomorrow. I’m taking you to…” He looked confused for a moment, then frowned and shook his head. “Somewhere. I put it in my phone so I wouldn’t forget, even if I forgot. You still want to go to dinner with me?”

“Of course I do,” Emily said. “Right now I’m starving, though.”

“That I can fix,” Hunter said. “I don’t cook as much as I did when my daughter lived here but I’m pretty good in the kitchen.” He went back into the hall and Emily looked at the chicken salad. She couldn’t believe that he’d forgotten the chicken salad already and held it tighter. Hunter stuck his head back in the room. “Are you coming?”

“Yeah,” Emily said, smiling at him in the hopes he wouldn’t see her concern. She followed him into the kitchen and sat on a barstool beside a granite-topped island while he went to the refrigerator. “You still cook?”

“It’s one of the few things that hasn’t really changed for me,” Hunter said, opening the refrigerator. “Even I can follow a recipe as long as I make sure I don’t take too many breaks. The breaks are when I start losing things.” He took out most of a quiche. “Eggs sound good to you?”

“Sure,” Emily said with a grin. “I love eggs.” She carefully set the chicken salad on the stool next to her so he wouldn’t see it, and Hunter cut a piece of quiche out of the dish and put it on a plate for her. “This smells wonderful.”

“Do you want me to heat it up?” He nodded toward the microwave and Emily shook her head. “All right, here you go.” He put a fork on the plate and handed it to her, then considered the quiche. “I think I’ll have some myself. I haven’t eaten yet.” Emily watched him serve himself a piece, then cut off a bite of the quiche and smiled.

“This is fantastic. I haven’t had quiche this good that didn’t come from a restaurant.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Hunter said with a grin. Emily’s heart fluttered and she realized she was staring at him. “Wine?”

“I could definitely use a glass of wine,” she replied. “It’s been a red wine kind of night.”

“You’re in luck, then,” Hunter said. He took out two stemless wine glasses and a bottle of red wine. “I just opened a bottle of Beaujolais.” He poured a glass of wine for Emily and handed it to her, then poured a glass for himself while she took a sip.

“This is the perfect wine,” she said. “It tastes expensive.” Hunter shrugged and corked the wine, then leaned on the island and took a drink.

“I thought you said you had plans tonight.”

“I did,” Emily said, cutting off another piece of quiche. “I was at the university checking some samples. I’ve been working on a side project with my friend and the only time I have to do that is after work. This isn’t how I expected my evening to go, but I can’t say I’m not happy with how it turned out. If those idiots next door hadn’t set their place on fire, I wouldn’t be sitting in your kitchen drinking wine with you.”

“Here’s to your neighbors, then.” Hunter lifted his wine glass and Emily clinked hers against it. His eyes flicked toward the second barstool and he frowned. “What’s that?”

“Oh,” Emily said, feeling her cheeks turn red. “It’s the chicken salad I brought.”

“That’s right,” Hunter said with a heavy sigh. “You did bring that, didn’t you?” Emily didn’t answer, and he took a long drink of his wine. He uncorked the bottle and freshened his glass. “I get worse at night. It’s not unusual, it happens to a lot of people with Alzheimer’s.”

“Yes,” Emily said, holding out her glass for a refill. “I’m familiar with it. They call it ‘sundowning.’” She put the chicken salad on the table. “I didn’t want to bring it up. I thought it might make you uncomfortable if I did.”

“Maybe it would have a year ago, but I’ve grown a thicker skin since then. I can’t quite laugh at myself yet but I’m sure I will sometime. For now, I don’t want you to feel like you can’t bring up my missteps. Not if we’re going to spend time together outside of work.” This made the blush that had just disappeared from her cheeks to come back with a vengeance, and she looked down into her wine as she swirled it around the glass. “If you still want to spend time with me after staying at my house, that is.”

“Of course I do!” Emily looked up at him. “I want to get to know you better, Dr. Chambers.”

“Good,” Hunter said. “I want to get to know you too. And it’s Hunter. If you’re going to be sleeping in my guest room and drinking my wine, we should be on a first name basis.”

“That’s fine with me,” Emily said, grinning, “but you have to call me Emily.” She speared the last bit of her quiche while Hunter took the chicken salad to the refrigerator and put it on the middle shelf, then collected both of their plates and put them in the sink.

“Remind me I put that in there,” he said. “We can have sandwiches for lunch.”

“Sounds good to me,” Emily said. She drained her wine glass and Hunter held up the bottle. “No thanks. I’m kind of a lightweight.”

“Suit yourself,” Hunter said. He put the bottle in the refrigerator and closed the door. Emily smiled at him.

“You’d probably do better keeping that in the pantry,” she said. Hunter looked at her as if he was trying to figure out what she was talking about and she went to the refrigerator and took out the wine. She looked around. “Where’s your pantry?”

“Over here,” Hunter said, taking the bottle from her and opening a slender door alongside the stove. He put it on the shelf and looked over at Emily. “Thanks for that. I probably should go to bed before I put another piece of foil in the microwave.” Emily’s eyes widened in alarm and he laughed. “I needed a new one anyway.” They left the kitchen and Hunter turned off the lights as they did.

“I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay here,” she said. Hunter smiled at her.

“It’s my pleasure,” he said. “I’m sorry about the fire, but I’m glad you’re here. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a brilliant neuroscientist as a guest, much less one as beautiful as you.” The combination of his words and the wine she’d drunk made Emily dizzy for a moment and she reached out to steady herself with the bannister. Afraid of what she’d say if she opened her mouth, she stayed quiet. Hunter walked her all the way to the guest room, pointing at the largest bedroom as he did. “That one’s my bedroom, feel free to knock if you need anything. The guest bathroom is right across the hall. There’s not much in the way of shampoo and soap, so feel free to take whatever you need from Robin’s bathroom.”

“Thanks,” Emily said. “I could definitely use a shower before bed. Oh, and do you have a spare phone charger? Mine was in my apartment.”

“Sure, I’ll get you one from my room. I only have about ten of them. Make yourself at home. Do you need something to wear to bed? You’re about the same size as my daughter, I doubt she’d mind if you grabbed something from her dresser.” They stood outside the guest room, Emily wondering if he suddenly felt as awkward as she did. They’d planned on going to dinner but Emily hadn’t thought of anything past that. The wine was making it hard for her not to say something stupid about having a crush on him, and she cleared her throat.

“I guess I should go raid your daughter’s room for pajamas,” she said. “It’s been a long day.” Hunter nodded.

“Same here. I should go to bed before I say something that embarrasses us both. See you in the morning.” He went down the hall to his bedroom and closed the door behind him while Emily went into the guest bathroom. As soon as she closed the door, she sat on the closed lid of the toilet and exhaled slowly. When she’d left the university she hadn’t had anything on her mind other than going to bed and resting up for the next day. She had to go to St. Cecilia’s before she and Hunter had dinner, and she was very much looking forward to one and not at all to the other. Now she’d have to make time to go and see if she was allowed to go into her house too.

Emily leaned her head back so she could look at the ceiling. She couldn’t help wondering what Hunter had on his mind that would embarrass them both. She imagined him getting ready for bed, possibly taking a shower of his own just down the hall and sat up straight.

Now I’m embarrassing myself, she thought. We haven’t even been on a date yet. Tomorrow might not even be a date, just dinner. Emily got up and went down the hall to Robin’s room, resisting the temptation to stop at Hunter’s door and listen to see if he was showering. And this is why I don’t drink. She pushed open the door to his daughter’s room and looked around. The room looked like it belonged to a college student and Emily wondered how old she was. For that matter, she didn’t know how old Hunter was. His hair was still almost entirely dark brown enough to look black, and he looked like he was in his forties in spite of his glasses. She went into the bathroom and grabbed the first shampoo and conditioner she saw, then rummaged through Robin’s drawers to find a pair of pajama pants and a tank top. It wasn’t the usual sort of thing she would wear to bed but it would be comfortable and, most importantly, clean.

It occurred to her as she walked back down the hall to the guest bathroom that she was going to have to buy something to wear to dinner if everything in her place was ruined and Emily sighed. She’d have to squeeze that in somewhere as well, and she didn’t have a huge well to draw from money-wise. It was worth it, though, as long as Melissa was taken care of. She smiled in spite of herself as she imagined what Melissa would say in that situation.

”Just buy the damn dress and quit thinking about it. When was the last time you did something nice for yourself? Or went out with a man at all?”

“All right,” Emily said to the silence as she closed the door and pulled her hair out of its ponytail, hoping Hunter didn’t hear her talking to herself. “You win. You always did.”

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