The last person Hunter expected to call him at work was his housekeeper, so when he saw her picture on his cell phone he knew something was wrong. He grabbed it before it went to voicemail and put the phone to his ear.
“Hello, ah,” he paused, trying to remember her name and halfway panicking because he’d never forgotten someone’s name that he knew so well. His stomach lurched and he put a hand over his eyes in case his body decided it wanted to start crying. Then it came to him and he relaxed. “Patricia. What’s going on?”
“There’s a deliveryman here with a package for you but they won’t give it to me without your authorization.” Patricia sounded deeply affronted by this and he smiled.
“Hand him the phone, if you don’t mind. I’ll talk to him.” Hunter waited a moment, picking at the corner of a notepad they gave their drug reps to give as freebies. The phone changed hands and a man’s voice came over the line.
“Are you Hunter Chambers?”
“Yes,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I’m currently at the office, so I give my full authorization for Patricia to accept the package for me. If you want, I can send a photo of my driver’s license to her.”
“That’s all right, sir, I just needed to confirm it was you. Thank you.” The phone changed hands again and Patricia returned to the line.
“I assume you didn’t know this package was coming,” she said. “Otherwise you would have told me that you were expecting it.” He heard the door close and the click of Patricia’s clogs on the floor. “The return label says it’s from Eagle Pharmaceuticals,” she said. “It also says to keep it refrigerated.”
“That’s excellent news,” Hunter said, a grin spreading over his face as he got up from his desk. “Just make a spot for it in the refrigerator and put it in there. I’ll take care of it when we get home. Thank you again.” He hung up and dropped his phone into his pocket, eager to go to Emily’s lab and tell her that his first round of the infusion had arrived.
His hand was on the door handle when it moved on its own and he took a step back so the door wouldn’t hit him when it swung inward. Much to his surprise, one of the three men who stepped into his office was the owner of Apogee Labs, Edward Kessler. Hunter smiled at him, hoping his face didn’t reflect the return of the sick feeling in his stomach. Standing alongside Edward was Derek Haynes, who was smiling in an unsettling way.
“Dr. Chambers,” Edward said as the third man closed the door behind them. He assumed that the man was Edward’s assistant, but didn’t ask. There was no point when he’d just forget it anyway. “I’m glad we caught you. How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Hunter said, his nausea intensifying. “And yourself?”
“We’re not here to talk about my health,” Edward said. “We’re here because I’ve heard something extremely disturbing and I wanted to get confirmation from you before I moved on it.” His assistant closed the blinds on the window that looked out into the hall. “Dr. Haynes overheard you talking to Dr. Ashton in her lab – which we’ll be discussing later – and she asked if there had been any further progression of the dementia. Would you care to explain that?”
Hunter’s blood froze. He didn’t know how to answer. If he lied, it sounded as if they would be able to call him out on it. If he told the truth, he could lose his job, his insurance, and the reputation he’d spent his life building. He thought of Emily down in her lab, working on her new drug with no idea what was happening several floor up, and wished she was there to help him somehow. Even if she was, Emily had plenty to lose herself and he wasn’t about to throw her into the middle of it. Hunter took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.
“I have Alzheimer’s,” he admitted, not surprised that he was shaking. “Early-onset Alzheimer’s. I’ve had it for almost a year.” The three men in front of him were silent and he exhaled. “I’ve been on medication, and I’m in a clinical trial for a new medication that Dr. Ashton’s friend developed. It’s as close to stable as it can possibly be for the moment.”
“And that’s the reason you and she have been seen together so much recently?” There was more than a hint of disapproval in his voice and Hunter tried his best to remember if there was anything in the hiring manual about employees not being in relationships. Even if it hadn’t been years since the last update, his memory got even worse when he was stressed. The best thing to do was tell the truth, otherwise Emily could be in more trouble later.
“In part. We started out spending time together because of her research but it developed into more. We’re in a relationship now, and as far as I can remember there’s no rule against it.” It was a poor choice of words and he regretted it almost instantly.
“That’s not what’s troubling us,” Edward said. “I’m afraid I have serious doubts about your ability to run this company in light of this new information. You are responsible for the jobs of hundreds of people and oversee research that can affect peoples’ lives. We just can’t leave all of that in the hands of someone who might one day not remember his login credentials or misplace reports.” Hunter remembered the trouble he’d had in Emily’s lab and felt his face getting hot.
“What are you saying, Ed?”
“I’m saying that hiding your dementia is no longer an option, and we can’t allow you to be in a position of such enormous responsibility in your current state, much less the way you’ll eventually be. You know better than anyone that Alzheimer’s is progressive. You’re only going to get worse.” Edward sighed and shook his head. “I’m truly sorry, Hunter. You’re one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, and it’s a shame what’s happening to you. But as of today you no longer work for Apogee Labs.”
As much as he wanted to, Hunter knew there was no sense in trying to argue. He couldn’t deny that he wouldn’t be fit to run the company someday, but he had been doing fine up until that morning. It was hard enough accepting that he was being fired but asking him to accept the fact that he truly was unable to work in his former capacity was almost impossible. He became aware that Edward was still talking and tried to focus.
“—until the end of the day to clear out your office,” Edward was saying when Hunter’s attention snapped back to him. He wanted to ask his now former boss what he had said, but he knew it wouldn’t help his image and he had a pretty good idea of what he’d said. “Dr. Haynes will be taking over your position as of this afternoon. We’ll leave you alone to pack up but he’ll be moving his things in tomorrow.” He turned to go back out the door and Hunter took a step toward them.
“What am I supposed to do about my treatment? I can’t pay for my medication without insurance.” Hunter was aware that he sounded like he was whining but he didn’t care. Even though it didn’t seem to be doing much on its own, he was afraid to discontinue his regular medication. Edward turned to him and smiled kindly.
“As I said, we’ve put together a generous severance packet for you. Two years’ salary and you get to keep your insurance indefinitely. It’s the least we can do after everything you’ve done for us. I’m sorry to do this so suddenly,” Edward said. “We have to do what’s best for the company.”
“I understand,” Hunter said, even though he really didn’t. “I’ll have my things gone by the end of the day and I’ll turn in my keys.”
“Thank you for being so reasonable about this,” Edward said. “I told Dr. Haynes that you would be; you’ve always been one of the most levelheaded men I’ve known, and you deserved every award they gave you.” Hunter noticed that he was already using the past tense and he fought the sick feeling that had become so all-encompassing that his mouth had started watering. “HR will send the paperwork up to you this afternoon, you don’t even have to go down there and see anyone. We want to make this as painless as possible for you.”
“I appreciate that,” Hunter said, and though he knew it was his voice he felt like it was coming from someone else entirely. He was beyond appreciation, or understanding, or anything else that he might have mouthed while his brain was elsewhere.
“We hope to see you again,” Haynes said, sounding more condescending than anyone he had ever known. Hunter wanted to shout at him that he wasn’t incompetent, but he continued to sit in his chair as they walked out of the office that had been his for the last twenty-three years.
His entire body felt numb. It seemed like it had been days since he had gotten the call from Patricia about his package, but it hadn’t even been forty minutes. He looked around his office at his awards, his diplomas, and the trophy he’d gotten for winning the trivia contest at his favorite bar, the one that he didn’t even go to anymore. There was no way he was going to be able to get another job in his field, not if his Alzheimer’s was public knowledge, and thinking about his honors being relegated to a corner of his attic made him want to cry. Before he could, however, he shot out of his chair and went for the door. There was only one place he wanted to be at that moment and he had to get down there before he was barred from it altogether.
Everything that he passed made him more and more aware that he had been fired. The hall that led to the animal research area where Emily refused to go, the 3D printer that had been installed after a handful of senior employees begged for it, and the genetics lab that might have held the secret to helping Emily’s sister. He was no longer authorized to work with any of these things. In fact, he had a feeling they assumed he was cleaning out his office at that moment.
“Good morning, Dr. Chambers,” one of the research assistants in the pharmaceutical development department said as he nearly ran through it to the door that led to Emily’s small corner of the lab, the one he’d given her when he’d only just known her name. Through the door he could hear the loud dubstep music she used to keep the other researchers away from her lab, and he gripped the handle of the door tightly for a few moments, trying to gather his thoughts before he turned it.
He had no idea how he was going to tell her what had happened. Until Haynes and Edward had walked into his office, she was the only person at Apogee that knew what was going on with him. He’d hoped to keep it that way longer but there was no stopping it now, no going back, fixing the damage, keeping his job. Working on computers for so long had made it second nature to undo any mistake, and he found himself impossibly thinking that he could hit a button that would take him back to the moment he was diagnosed and make things different. Hunter exhaled slowly. Almost from the beginning, he’d told Emily the truth, even when it was blunt or hard to get out. She was kind about it, and her strength gave him what he needed to get through the mess his life had become. He needed that strength now, even if it was completely selfish to ask for it. He turned the knob and pushed the door open.
“Emily,” he began as he stepped through the door, only to see that she had her hands over her face and was shaking. All thoughts of his current situation fled from his mind when he saw her crying and he closed the door and knelt beside her chair so that he was in her line of sight. “Emily, what’s wrong?” Emily put her arms around him in response and held him tightly.
“It’s Melissa,” she said between sobs. “She’s dead.”