The Absence of Intellect – Nine

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He’d been tired when he came home from work so Hunter had laid down on the couch and dozed off while he waited for Emily to get back. She’d been staying there for almost two weeks and he worried every day that she would tell him it was time for her to go.

After she’d kissed him in the elevator at St. Cecilia’s, dinner had been something of a blur. He couldn’t say he remembered what they talked about or what he’d eaten, but the image of Emily in a vibrant dress that brought out the green in her hazel eyes was one he was grateful he couldn’t get rid of. Her hair, her clothes, even her shoes were firmly ingrained in his memory and he smiled.

At the end of the date he had walked her to the guest room door because it had seemed somehow appropriate, and she had thanked him and kissed him on the cheek before disappearing into the room he was coming to think of as hers. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but it had been a little disappointing.

Lightning cracked outside the window and woke him with a start, and Hunter was surprised to find that he was in total darkness. He was disoriented for a moment, and the sound of rain pouring outside didn’t help. He looked at his smart watch and saw that it was 10:00, then grabbed his phone and called Emily.

“Hunter?” She picked up immediately and her voice relieved some of the tension he felt. “Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m fine, I mean. I just woke up and it was dark, and you weren’t home yet.” The word had escaped his lips before he could stop it, and he cursed himself for the further erosion of his filter. “Where are you?”

“I’m at Apogee,” she said, her voice somehow expressionless. “In my lab, I mean. I’ll be heading over soon, don’t worry.”

“It’s raining really hard,” Hunter said. “Let me come pick you up.”

“Should you be driving at night?” Emily sounded concerned, and while he was glad she’d gotten over her fear of talking to him about his disease, he couldn’t help wishing she wouldn’t worry so much. “I’ll be fine. I’ve got an umbrella, and it’s not a long walk to the bus stop.”

“Emily,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I got a new GPS so all I have to do is follow the directions. I’m not going to argue with you about this.” He got up from the couch and went to the door, scooping his keys out of the bowl on the table. “Just wait for me in the lab.”

“All right,” Emily said, the resignation in her voice more worrisome than the thought of her trying to make her way home in the rain, but he still didn’t want her to do it. “I’ll be here.”

“Good.” Hunter took his umbrella from the stand by the door and popped it open as he stepped out into the rain. It wasn’t raining as hard as he’d expected, which was good news because this would be the first time he’d driven after dark since his symptoms had started worsening.

Over the years, he’d made the drive to work hundreds of times but this time he did it clutching the steering wheel so tightly that it made his hands hurt. He missed more than one turn with the water distracting him and had to double back, but when he pulled safely into his parking spot he was able to relax. He’d never hoped he would forget something as much as he did that moment, but he had a feeling the drive was going to stay in his head forever.

He found Emily in her lab, sitting at her desk with her face in her hands. She didn’t look like she was crying but he knew that didn’t mean she wasn’t. Not wanting to startle her, he cleared his throat and she spoke without moving her hands.

“I heard you come in this time,” she said, as if she was reading his mind. Hunter came over and put a hand on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Emily looked up at him and he could see that she had definitely been crying. He was about to kneel beside her when she stood up and took his hands in hers. “You’re about to give me some bad news, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she said. “I was doing some research into the proteins that I’d thought would be a good framework for the neural bridge, but every time I tried to simulate its use the protein disintegrated. It was my best idea, and the theory I hinged all my work on. If the protein can’t be used, I’m back to square one. I said it would be months before it’s ready for clinical trials but now I’m afraid it’s going to be years. Best case scenario it’ll be five years, but that’s being very optimistic.”

“What?” Hunter’s body went cold. “I don’t have years.” He realized how selfish that sounded and looked away. “Your sister doesn’t have years.”

“I know,” Emily said. “I can’t do anything for her. I’m going to stop working on the neural bridge for now and concentrate on getting the new cholinesterase inhibitor ready for clinical trials. I know it’s not the breakthrough you were hoping for, but it was never meant to be curative. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Hunter said, trying to force a smile. “You did your best, right? It’s all any of us can do.” Emily looked up at him, her eyes slightly red from crying, and it occurred to him that even if they started an actual relationship, he didn’t know how long it would be before he would forget her face at that moment, or even who she was at all. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled onto his cheeks before he could even try to blink them away, and the futility of the whole situation came at him from all sides. There was no cure coming. He was going to keep losing parts of himself until all Emily was left with – if she even wanted to stay with him – was another empty body. This thought broke him and he put his arms around her and held her as tightly as possible as he cried.

I’m going to forget her, he thought. I’m going to forget her, and I’m going to forget Robin, and Ellen too. I won’t remember my wedding day, or Robin’s birth, or my mother and father’s faces. How can I go on living knowing this? What do I even have left to live for?

Then, arms encircled his neck gently. They were surprisingly strong.

“I know,” Emily said, her lips somehow close to his ear. She didn’t tell him things were going to be all right, or that she knew how to fix things, she just stroked the back of his neck and let him cry. “I’m so sorry, Hunter.”

When he finally loosened his grip on her, Emily guided him into her chair and put her hands on his shoulders. Unable to look at her, he studied his hands instead. She put her arms around him again, and he leaned his head against her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes closed. Emily was stroking the back of his neck. “It seems like I’ve gotten more emotional lately.”

“I know,” Emily said, a smile in her voice. “You’ve told me. But there’s no reason for you to apologize. Not to me, not ever.” This made Hunter look up at her at last. He was surprised to see that her eyes were filled with tears as well. “Come on, let’s go back to your place. We can have a glass of wine and get you in bed.”

“I’d rather have whiskey,” Hunter said. He took her hands and wasn’t surprised to see that his were shaking.

“Maybe I should drive,” Emily said. She let go of him and took off her lab coat, then hung it on the peg by the door. Hunter took his keys out of his pocket and handed them to her. Emily twirled them on her finger. “That was easy.”

“I’m hoping that you actually know how to drive,” Hunter said, getting to his feet. His legs felt as shaky as his hands but they held him so he followed her out of the lab. Emily laughed.

“Of course I do,” she said. “Just because I make use of our city’s superior public transportation doesn’t mean I don’t renew my license every five years like everyone else. I sometimes rent a ZipCar when I need to get a case of water or huge order of groceries. Or cat litter, though that’s been more of a recent development.” She looked up at Hunter. “Speaking of, how do you feel about cats? The vet’s been boarding Mimi all this time and I have no idea what it’s costing me.”

“It just so happens I love cats,” he said. “I was just thinking that what my place needed was a large cat and four smaller cats.”

“Mimi’s hardly large,” Emily said with a smile. “Thank you, though. I’ll keep them in my room.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Hunter said, pressing the down button on the elevator. Emily looked at him curiously and he tried to find the words to express what he wanted to say. It felt like they were trapped, and he knew what he wanted to tell her but it was too late in the day for nuance or teasing. Before he could get himself upset about it, though, he decided just to say it. “I want you to sleep with me.”

“You what?” Her eyes widened and he felt himself getting red.

“In my bed. Not in the other room,” he said, his frustration growing with every word. He sounded like a five year old, which made the subject matter feel incredibly sleazy. Emily smiled at him, and he felt a surge of affection as he saw understanding in her face.

“I was hoping you’d ask,” she said, reaching a hand out to him. Hunter took it, feeling lightheaded with relief, and they stepped into the elevator together. “It’s so nice seeing you first thing in the morning, it’ll be even better waking up beside you.” She squeezed his hand and he smiled. For a moment he couldn’t remember what he’d asked her but he knew it had made her happy, and that was what was important.

Robin, he thought, hoping that saying the names of the two most important people in the world to him would keep him grounded. Robin Sophia Chambers. Emily. Emily Ashton. He turned to look at her.

“What’s your middle name?” The question was blunt and abrupt, but Emily didn’t seem fazed in the least.

“Melissa,” she said. “My parents thought they were being clever by naming me Emily Melissa and my sister Melissa Emily. I used to hate it, but now I don’t mind so much. We’ve been a part of each other since we were in the womb, after all. It’s only right that—” Hunter didn’t let her finish. He leaned in and kissed her, grateful for once at his inability to be patient.

“Emily Melissa Ashton,” he said, trying to wedge it into his brain. “Dr. Emily Melissa Ashton.”

“M.D.,” she added, lacing her fingers through his. Hunter laughed.

“That’s right. You could stitch me up if I needed it.” He kissed her again, more quickly this time, as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor. “Come on, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see a strange look on Emily’s face but he couldn’t quite understand why. Rather than ask her, he concentrated on remembering where he’d parked his car. He knew it was in his parking space but he couldn’t quite figure out where it was. The fog was setting in and he clenched his jaw.

Emily Melissa Ashton, he thought determinedly, using her name as if it was a charm. I’m not going to forget. I can’t. I won’t.

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