The Absence of Intellect – Eight

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With her wallet safely in her computer bag, Emily stepped off the train and looked around to orient herself. St. Cecilia’s was a few streets away and her mind worked tirelessly as she made her way to the hospital.

The fire department had given her clearance to go into her house and get her wallet, along with anything else she needed, but she’d hardly opened the door when she knew it was going to be a while before she could even begin to sort through her things. Smoke damage covered the walls, mainly concentrated around several large holes in the wall that separated the two sides of the townhouse where it had poured through. The smell of burnt plaster hung in every room, and what wasn’t completely ruined was soaking wet. It was too much for her to deal with at one time, so she decided to go to the hospital and try to calm herself down.

The automatic doors slid open as she approached and the temperature dropped to a carefully controlled coolness as soon as they closed behind her. She walked through the lobby toward the elevators and hit the button for the fifth floor, leaning against the back of the elevator while she tried to think about Hunter instead of her ruined house.

She welcomed the distraction. The townhouse was what she was able to afford at the moment, and if she had to find somewhere else to live it was probably going to be several steps down. Getting the money together for another deposit was going to be difficult so soon after the last move, and she sighed. At least she’d had the foresight to get renter’s insurance. That would help with some of it. Emily forced herself to turn her mind to her date.

If his housekeeper hadn’t walked in, he almost certainly would have kissed her and she almost certainly would have let him. The attraction she’d felt for him since they’d met had only intensified being so close to him, and she hoped she wasn’t mistaken that he felt the same way. She wondered if he would be offended if she kissed him first after their date, even if it was just on the cheek.

The elevator doors opened and Emily stepped into the hall of the long-term care unit. She raised a hand in greeting to the duty nurse at the desk, and the woman nodded at her as she passed. Emily was a regular visitor, and the nurses knew her on sight. Most of them even knew her coffee preference. Each of the rooms had a window set in the door, and a small placard that gave the name of its occupant. Emily stopped beside the one that read Melissa Amell and took a deep breath as she put her hand on the door. It always took a moment for her to prepare herself, even though it had been nearly four years. She pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Unlike the other rooms on the ward, the person who occupied the bed was unconscious. The rhythmic motion of the ventilator that forced air into her lungs was the background to the beeping of the machines that monitored her vitals. The numbers displayed on the screen told Emily that the woman was stable, her vitals as even and calm as a person who was asleep. If it weren’t for the machines and IV lines that were attached to her, she could have been asleep. Beneath her closed lids, her eyes were the same hazel as Emily’s, and her close-cropped hair was the same golden brown. Emily went to the side of the bed and took the woman’s cool, still hand.

“Hey there,” she said softly, as if speaking in a normal tone would disturb Melissa. “Just came up to check on you and tell you that I’m still working on something that will help you. It’s going well. I even got my own lab to work on the neural bridge. Let me tell you about what’s going on at BioGen, though, it’s really, really promising.”

A noise from behind Emily made her turn, expecting a nurse to come through the door with a cup of coffee or a more comfortable chair. What she found instead was Hunter standing behind her with a white paper sack in his hand. This time, however, he didn’t startle her.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said in a voice that was similarly quiet. “I was here picking up some medication from my friend and saw you get in the elevator. I thought I would catch up with you and maybe give you a ride to wherever you’re headed next.”

“Thank you,” Emily said with a smile. She patted Melissa’s hand. “As long as you’re here, I may as well introduce you. This is Melissa. She’s my older sister.” She wasn’t surprised to see the confusion on Hunter’s face as he looked from Emily to her sister and back.

“She looks just like you.”

“We’re twins,” Emily said. “She’s older than me by twenty minutes and she never let me forget it when we were kids.” She chuckled. “She always took care of me. Now I’m the one taking care of her.” There were two chairs by the wall and Emily motioned to them. “Feel free to have a seat if you want. I don’t spend too much time here. I’m not sure if she even hears me and it makes me sad to think she might not.”

“What happened to her?” Hunter rolled the top of the bag closed and set it on the chair, then met her at the side of the bed. Emily looked back at her sister.

“Her lungs are paralyzed,” Emily said. “The doctors don’t even have a name for what’s wrong with her. It happened a little at a time and they were still trying to run tests when it wasn’t so severe, but she was on oxygen at home all the time. She was stable for a while and she even managed to get pregnant, against medical advice of course. Then some drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit her and my brother-in-law while they were in the crosswalk.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was killed instantly. They made it to the hospital with Melissa, but had to do an emergency c-section to deliver the baby. As soon as she was off the ventilator, she flatlined. The doctors were able to bring her back, but once her lungs had stopped, they never started working again.” She reached up and brushed her sister’s hair off her forehead. “My nephew didn’t make it either.”

“I’m so sorry, Emily.” Hunter put a hand on her shoulder and its warmth was comforting. It wasn’t a feeling she was accustomed to when she was in this room. “Is this why you were living in the townhouse?”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “Almost all my money goes to Melissa’s care. The doctors keep telling me that there’s no hope for her. If her lungs won’t work, she can’t live off a ventilator, and there’s no way of knowing just how much damage there is to her brain after the accident and the resuscitation. Not to mention the time she’s been in the coma.”

“But you don’t accept that,” Hunter said. Emily shook her head and he looked at Melissa. “What did you mean, you’re working on something that might help?”

“Hunter,” Emily said, taking a deep breath. “If I tell you this, you have to keep it between you and me. It’s not only a conflict of interested with Apogee Labs, it’s also probably illegal. I know that you’re my boss and you have an obligation to take action on something like this, but I can’t let Melissa just die without a fight.”

“Even if we weren’t—” In spite of the situation Emily held her breath to hear what he was going to say next. Hunter didn’t seem to be able to find the words, though, and she didn’t know how to help him. “I wouldn’t fire you for trying to save your sister,” he said. “I’m not a monster.”

“All right,” Emily said. “I’m sure you can guess that the reason the neural bridge is important to me is because it might be able to help restore some of her brain function if she wakes up.” She closed her eyes. “My friend works at BioGen. She’s letting me use the lab after hours to do some testing. I’m trying to culture lung tissue and use a biological matrix as a scaffold to basically grow her new lungs.”

“How are you going to do that? Setting aside the fact that I have no idea what a biological matrix is anymore, if you use her cells for the culture, won’t those lungs be diseased too?”

“Possibly,” Emily said. “There’s really so much we don’t know about transplant medicine. We also don’t know much about the genetic component of this sort of disease, so I’m trying to create the new lungs from healthy tissue.” She looked up at Hunter. “We’re identical twins. She’d still have to take immunosuppressants but the risk of rejection would be lower.” He looked somewhat confused and she smiled. “I’m using my own cells.”

“How?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Emily said, not wanting to make him feel bad. “It’s a slow process. That’s what I’ve been doing at night, though. It’s been my top priority for more than a year.” She looked back at Melissa. “Everything I’ve done has been to take care of her. I don’t regret it, though. When she’s able to open her eyes and take a breath on her own, it will all be worth it.”

“Maybe it’s time for you to think about yourself,” Hunter said, squeezing her shoulder. “Even if it’s just long enough to go to dinner.” Emily put her hand over his.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” She already knew the answer, but she wanted to hear him say it out loud.

“Of course I won’t,” Hunter said. “You’re keeping my secret, after all. Even if you weren’t, I’d still keep this quiet. Whatever anyone else might think about it, I think it’s wonderful of you to do this for your sister.” Emily put her arms around him without thinking, and hugged him tightly. Hunter responded by putting his arms around her and laughing softly. “If I’d known this was going to be my reward, I would have said it sooner.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “You don’t know how much it means to me to hear someone say that.” She could hear Hunter’s heart beating and closed her eyes. Even though she knew that this was a completely inappropriate thing to do by her sister’s bed, she let herself relax in his arms. If anyone would understand why she was doing this, it was Hunter.

“We should get going,” he said after a few minutes. “Don’t want to miss our dinner reservation.” Emily nodded and let go of him. “I’ll drive us back to Forest Glen. There’s no reason for you to drag a suitcase on the train.”

“There’s no suitcase,” she sighed. “Not even a duffel bag. Everything’s wet so all my clothes either smell like smoke or mildew. I may just have to throw all of it out. Which means that I’m going to need to buy a couple of things if I don’t want to wear the same two outfits until I get things figured out.” Hunter nodded and picked up the paper sack from the chair by the door.

“I guess this means we’re going on a shopping spree,” he said with a smile. Emily picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.

“Not quite. I was thinking more like a quick Target run.” It was the first time she’d been able to joke as she walked out of her sister’s room, and she was more grateful to Hunter than she could express. As she passed, Hunter put a hand on the small of her back for just a moment and she felt a rush of warmth as she remembered how close they’d come to kissing that morning.

They got on the elevator together and Emily pushed the button for the ground floor. Then as the doors slid closed, she turned and kissed him very lightly on the lips. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but when Hunter pulled her into his arms and kissed her back, she was more than relieved. She felt like she was right where she was supposed to be for the first time since her sister’s accident. Emily wanted to thank him but she knew it would sound strange if she did. When they parted, Emily searched for the right words but was interrupted by the elevator doors opening.

“You really want to go to Target?”

“That’s where I get most of my clothes,” Emily said. “Have you even been in one before?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to go someplace nicer?” She started to speak and he held up a hand. “I’ll pay for it.”

“You absolutely will not.” She shook her head and he led her to the parking garage with a smirk.

“We’ll see.”

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