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The Absence of Intellect – Fourteen

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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.

“Dr. Chambers?”

“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.”

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The Absence of Intellect – Thirteen

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“Wow,” Hunter said from the entryway of Emily’s apartment. “This place looks worse than I imagined.” The insurance agent looked over at him, pausing in his writing on a clipboard. “Sorry, thinking out loud.”

“Your boyfriend is right,” the agent said, shaking his head. “This place is a total loss. It’s a good thing you had your own insurance. Your landlord’s wouldn’t have covered any of your high-end items. You’ll be lucky if you get more than $1500 in compensation from his insurance company.” He looked back down at his clipboard. “You’ll have to speak to him directly about the terms of your lease but unless he has another property he wants to move you into, I’m going to guess your lease is terminated.”

“What about my neighbors’ place?” Emily was standing in the doorway of her kitchen and the agent pointed up at the holes in the shared wall.

“The fire was caused by a pizza box left in the stove while they were at the store, reportedly buying beer. Since it went unreported until it was visible from the neighboring houses, the damage was far more severe. Almost everything has been destroyed, and because the fire was caused by neglect very little of it will be covered.” He tore the top page off the form on his clipboard and handed it to Emily. “I recommend you start going through your things to find out what can be salvaged. Where would you like me to send your check?”

“Can you do direct deposit?” The agent shook his head, and she looked up at Hunter. “Is it okay if I have it sent to your place?”

“Of course,” Hunter said with a smile. “You can forward all your mail if you want.” His words made Emily’s heart swell and she picked her way across the water-damaged carpet to kiss him. “We’ll put your name in the mailbox when we get back.” Emily didn’t get a chance to reply to this before the insurance agent looked at his watch.

“I have to be going. If you have any other questions, feel free to email me.” He started for the door and Emily followed him.

“Thank you,” she said, opening the door for him. “Have a good day.” The agent nodded and went to his car, leaving Emily and Hunter alone in her apartment. “Well, I guess we’d better start figuring out what’s salvageable and what isn’t.”

“You’re going to need some sort of things to put things in. Those plastic things,” Hunter said, then closed his eyes. “You know what I mean, the ones with the lids.”

“Storage tubs,” Emily said, kissing him on the cheek. “You feeling up to running to Target and getting some for me? All you have to do is go straight down Addison. It’s fine if you don’t, I’ll completely understand.” Since she’d driven Hunter back from the airport after he came back to Chicago, Emily had done most of the driving and she had come to enjoy it when there was no traffic. Arriving at work at the same time as Hunter on a daily basis had gotten the attention of some of her coworkers, and for once the gossip she had caught was speculation about her relationship with the director rather than talking about her methods. “I can always go myself once we sort things into piles.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Hunter said, following her into the half room that she had made into a tiny office. “How many do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Emily said, opening the closet door. It was the smallest closet she’d ever seen but there was enough room for the squat gray safe that was inside. She knelt down, then grimaced as the knee of her jeans was soaked. “Ugh. How is this carpet still wet?”

“It’s probably the carpet pad,” Hunter said. “What’s in there?”

“Important family stuff,” Emily said. “Diplomas, financial information, and a few legal papers that can’t be replaced. I also have copies of Melissa’s and my birth certificates, her husband’s death certificate, and I think I’ve got their marriage license. There are some family pictures in here too.” She smiled and took out a small photo album, then stood up. “Check these out.” She opened the photo album and handed it to Hunter. “This is us as babies.”

“You’re so cute,” Hunter said with a grin. “You’re dressed alike. How did your parents know which of you was which?”

“See those little bracelets? They had our names on them.” She squatted in front of the safe this time to avoid getting her pants wet again and took out a small jewelry box. “I still have them. There’s some of my grandmother’s jewelry in here too.” She handed him a tiny bracelet with ‘Emily’ engraved on it in script.

“That’s a cute idea,” he said, turning the bracelet around. “I assume they stopped having you wear them when you got a little older.”

“Yeah, they started getting non-matching clothes for us when we got a little older and outgrew the family hand-me-downs. Mom gave these to Emily when she got pregnant and I got them after Emily died, along with some of her most precious photos and the jewelry Grandma Ashton gave her.” She took the bracelet back. “I think she intended her to give them to her granddaughter.”

“Did you ever consider having kids?”

“No,” Emily said, taking a second photo album out of the safe. This one was white and she opened it to the first page. “I assumed that since I have all the same genes as my sister, I could be carrying the one that caused her disease and I was worried about passing it to a child. Here, look at this.” She took the first album out of Hunter’s hand and set it on the desk beside the ruined computer and printer. “This is my sister and Brian on their wedding day. And if you flip all the way to the back her maternity photos are in it too.”

“It’s a good thing these were all in the safe,” Hunter said, turning the pages. “You can’t replace memories like these. Wouldn’t your parents want some too?”

“My parents and I don’t speak anymore,” Emily said, looking through the jewelry box so she didn’t have to look at Hunter. She didn’t particularly want to talk to him about her parents. Not because she didn’t think he could handle it, more because she didn’t want to talk about it to anyone at all. It was still too difficult for her to accept their ultimatum about Melissa, and she honestly didn’t know if she would ever speak to them again. “This is the engagement ring Brian gave her.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Hunter said. “I wish I could have kept Ellen’s. There was a mistake with her jewelry and her burial clothes and she ended up being buried with it. I had hoped to give it to Robin when she got old enough.”

“That’s too bad,” Emily said, closing the jewelry box. Hunter had never talked to her about his wife before, and she couldn’t help wondering what Ellen had been like. She knew firsthand about waiting until he wanted to tell her more, so she smiled. “Honestly, I could care less about most of this stuff. The only things that are really important are in this safe.”

“What about your computer?”

“I can probably have the data on the hard drive recovered, but the majority of my work is on my laptop and the computer at the lab. Insurance will cover the other hardware.” She sighed and put her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to do this, Hunter.”

“I know it’s probably hard to see your home ruined like this but you need to get your things. I’ve got plenty of room in my attic, you shouldn’t have to make any tough choices just yet.” He tapped the photo albums. “I’m going to get your storage containers. How many do you want?”

“Get me three to start, I guess. I’m going to see what clothes and books aren’t completely ruined,” Emily said. “I’m sure they all reek of smoke.” She walked to the door with Hunter. “If you have any problems, call me.”

“I will.” He leaned over and kissed her, then opened the door. Emily was just about to turn and go up the stairs to her bedroom when Hunter leaned back in. “That agent called me your boyfriend. Is that what I am now?”

“Maybe,” Emily said with a smile. “If you want to be.”

“It’s been a while since I was anybody’s boyfriend,” he said. “That being said, I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.” He closed the front door again and she put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him into a kiss that was much deeper than he had kissed her a moment earlier. Hunter held her tightly and kissed her back, then surprised her by picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder in something of a fireman’s carry.

“What are you doing?” Emily laughed as she slapped his back and he started up the stairs. “You’re going to hurt your back!”

“My mind may be going, but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of me yet and I intend to take advantage of it as long as I can.” The door to Emily’s bedroom was open and he dropped her onto the bed, then took his shirt off. The bed seemed to have dried out, though it smelled a little musty, and she decided that since it was probably the only time she’d ever get to have sex with someone in the townhouse, she was going to take advantage of it herself.

“All right,” she said with a smile, unbuttoning her jeans. “Don’t throw your clothes on the floor, though, they might get wet.” She tossed her jeans onto the dresser near her bed and took off her shirt as Hunter threw his pants on top of hers, followed by his shirt and finally his boxer briefs. He pulled Emily’s panties, the last piece of clothing she was wearing, off and dove into her. Once he was inside her, he rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him.

A ridiculous sudden fear that her landlord would choose that moment to come back made her burst out laughing, and she decided she didn’t care. She started to ride him, thinking that if this was what having a boyfriend again was going to be like, she was extremely mad at herself for waiting this long. A moment later, all she could think of was Hunter and nothing else really mattered.

The Absence of Intellect – Twelve

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For some reason, Hunter had the nagging feeling that he was going to come out of the airport and find that Emily was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t sure why, since he was fairly certain that a woman who was about to disappear on him wouldn’t have given him such an enjoyable and prolonged view of her breasts. When he reached the baggage carousel, though, he was relieved to see Emily sitting in the chairs by the wall. She had one leg thrown over her knee and was reading something on her phone, and she looked just as good in jeans as she did in her pajamas. She glanced up and when she saw him she jumped out of her seat.

“Hunter, hi!” Emily walked toward him, tucking her phone into the bag over her shoulder as she did. As soon as she was in reach, he abandoned his suitcase, took her face in his hands and kissed her more passionately and deeply than he’d ever kissed anyone before. Emily responded by putting her arms around his neck and pressing herself to him. When he released her, she exhaled slowly. “What brought that on? Not that I’m complaining.”

“I’m just happy to see you,” Hunter said. He picked up the handle of his suitcase again and offered her his hand. Emily took it and led him toward the door that led to the parking garage. “Got any plans for the evening?”

“Did you have an idea?” Emily smirked up at him and he raised an eyebrow.

“Not that idea. I thought it would be nice if I took you to dinner.” The automatic door slid open to let them through and Emily tugged him toward the crosswalk.

“That would be nice,” she said. “Where were you thinking?”

“Bernoulli,” he said airily, as if he was suggesting White Castle. Emily stopped in the middle of the parking garage and looked up at him, her mouth hanging open.

“That place is ridiculously expensive,” she said. “The valet alone is fifty dollars!”

“So you’re going to need to stop and get something to wear, is that what I’m hearing?” He looked around. “I’d be concerned that I don’t remember where the car is parked, but I’m not the one who drove here.”

“I have clothes,” Emily said. “I just can’t believe you want to take me to the hottest restaurant in town. I’m not exactly the target demographic.”

“You’re a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s going to figure out a way to reverse the damage caused by Alzheimer’s,” he said as she caught up to him. “You make more than enough to go to Bernoulli any time you want but you use your money in a better way. That’s why I want to treat you whenever I can.” Emily kissed him on the cheek.

“I don’t know about brilliant, but you’re the best,” she said. “If we’re going someplace fancy, I want to take a shower and wash my hair.” She quickened her step and Hunter grinned and followed her to the car. “You want to drive home?”

“You go ahead,” he said, putting his suitcase in the backseat. “You’re probably going to do it better than I would.”

It felt a little strange being in the passenger seat, but as Emily drove them out to Forest Glen he couldn’t help noticing how relaxing it was. For months he’d been tense when he was driving because he had been afraid he would make a wrong turn and get himself lost or worse. Landing himself in the hospital due to dementia was the fastest way to lose his job, short of getting someone killed.

While Emily took her shower, Hunter unpacked his suitcase. Not wanting to bother with sorting the clothes he’d taken, he dumped them all into the hamper for Patricia to take care of the next time she came by. It was far easier for a man to get dressed for a night out, and by the time Emily was finished getting ready, he’d already shaved, put on his nicest suit sans tie, and put in a call to Ellen’s brother to pull the necessary strings to get them a table at Bernoulli on short notice. He was sitting on the couch drinking his last sports drink when Emily came down the stairs and stopped his heart.

She was wearing a button-up silk blouse in a very flattering shade of plum, whose neckline was deep enough to show a hint of cleavage, and a black pencil skirt that just brushed the tops of her knees with a pair of black heels. Her hair lay around her shoulders in thick curls, one side pulled back with a black clip. She’d looked good when he took her to dinner before, but this time she was stunning.

“Sorry to take so long,” she said. “I don’t put on evening makeup nearly often enough to do it quickly. I think it came out nice, though,” she said, opening her purse and looking into it. “I did make sure to put my lipstick in my bag though.” Hunter put a hand on her hip and kissed the side of her neck in reply. “Hunter, we have reservations. Don’t we?”

“I don’t care,” he said into her ear. “I want this more. Do you?”

“Of course I do,” Emily said. “I’ve wanted this since we had breakfast in your kitchen.” She pushed his jacket off his shoulders and he let go of her so he could shrug it off and toss it onto the chair beside the couch. Then he kissed her and leaned her back on the couch. Emily put her arms around him and pulled him closer, kissing him back as she rested her head on the throw pillow. Hunter planted a knee on the couch between her legs so he could lean over her and push up her shirt. Emily laughed and pulled away.

“My shirt has buttons, you know,” she said, and it took Hunter a moment to realize what she was talking about. “Some genius.” He laughed and took off his glasses, setting them on the coffee table, then unbuttoned the first two buttons of her shirt. He lowered himself so he could press his lips to the space between her breasts and she reached back to put her hand on the back of his head. Hunter moved down, kissing her as he unbuttoned another button and pulled her shirt open to reveal a pink and gray lacy bra.

“When did you get this?”

“Does it matter?” Before he could answer, she reached down and unbuttoned his pants. “I bought the set, though.” Hunter kissed her again as she started to unzip his pants, and he put his hand on her thigh to push up her skirt. He had it halfway up her legs, fully intending to take off his pants and make love to her, when the front door opened.

“Dad? Are you home?” Robin’s voice filled the front hall and Hunter froze. The last thing he needed was for his daughter to see him having sex on the couch, and he sat up just as she came into the living room. Thankfully she was on the opposite side of the couch so she couldn’t see Emily pulling down her skirt, her face bright red. Robin beamed at him and he hurriedly buttoned his pants.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, reaching for his glasses. “I didn’t know you were coming home.” He smiled at her and Robin frowned.

“What are you doing on the couch?” She was unfortunately as intelligent as her father and Hunter looked down at Emily, who shrugged as she buttoned her shirt. “Is there someone over there with you?” In response, Emily sat up and smiled. Her hair was coming down from its clip and her cheeks bright red, and in spite of the awkward situation he couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she was.

“Sweetheart, this is Dr. Emily Ashton from Apogee Labs. Emily, this is my daughter Robin,” Hunter said, and she waved a little.

“Hi,” Emily said, and Robin put her hands on her hips and looked at her father.

“On the couch, Dad? You’re not sixteen anymore.”

“What exactly were you doing on the couch when you were sixteen?” He stood up, relieved somewhat that his daughter’s sudden presence had made it possible to stand up without embarrassing himself. Emily stood up, taking the clip out of her hair so it would look more presentable. Hunter had a feeling his own hair looked just as bad and he ran a hand through it. “Emily and I were just about to go out to dinner. You can join us if you like.”

“No thanks,” Robin said. “You two look like you need some alone time.”

“It’s fine,” Hunter said. “You came all the way here, I want to spend some time with you.” He looked at Emily, who nodded.

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll go over to Apogee Labs and get some work done. I need to work on a couple of things, and I can check on my samples again.” She gave him a rather disappointingly chaste on the cheek. “I’m going to go up and change clothes.” Emily started toward the stairs and Robin shook her head firmly.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Robin said. “You and Dad go out, I’ll get something out of the refrigerator. I don’t want to ruin your dinner plans.”

“How about we order something? Thai food sounds good, and you always did like that tea.” Hunter looked at his daughter, whose blue eyes were almost exactly like his own, and knew that she was about to dig in. She was as stubborn as her mother and him combined. “I just got back from out of town and I’d like you to get to know Emily.”

“You were out of town? Why?” Robin sighed. “Of course you’re not going to tell me, I’m just your daughter who constantly worries about you.” Hunter took his phone out of his pocket, not bothering to respond to that particular snipe. She turned to Emily. “It’s great to meet you,” she said, offering her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Emily said, shaking it. “I’ve seen pictures of you and I was hoping I’d get to see you in person.”

“I swear, Dad never tells me anything. I’m so glad he’s finally dating again, though. It only took him fifteen years.” Hunter ignored this too, dialing the Thai restaurant instead. “Have you worked together long?”

“About three years,” Emily said. “We’ve only started, um, going out recently.” Her eyes flicked to Hunter, who smiled and covered the bottom of his phone.

“Less gossiping, more ordering,” he said. “What do you two want?”

“Green curry,” Robin said. “Go ahead and get me a Thai tea too. I’m going upstairs to change. I hope neither of you mind if I wear my pajamas to dinner.”

“That actually sounds like a great idea,” Emily said. She looked at Hunter. “Pad khing for me, please, and I’ll have a Thai tea too. I love those.”

“You’re going to love this one,” Robin said. “They have my favorite in the city.” She waited for Emily to join her on the stairs, and the two women went up together talking about food. Just before they disappeared she heard Emily mention that she’d worn Robin’s pajamas the first night she stayed at Hunter’s house, and he smiled.

He’d known as soon as he spent time with Emily that she would get along with his daughter if they ever got the chance to meet. They were more alike than her mother had been, even though Emily was close to the age Ellen would have been if she was still alive. He didn’t have a chance to think about it much more before the Thai restaurant picked up the phone and Hunter realized that what his daughter and Emily wanted had completely disappeared from his mind. He just about ran up the stairs to the second floor and covered his phone.

“Emily, Robin? What was it you two wanted again?” They shouted their answer at the same time and he rubbed his forehead as he went toward Robin’s room to get her order again.

If this treatment didn’t work, he was definitely going to have to stock up on notepads.

The Absence of Intellect – Eleven

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“We’ll leave the IV catheter in,” the nurse said as she unhooked the syringe pump from the line in the back of Hunter’s hand. “There’s one more infusion for the loading dose, then you’ll get an infusion once a month and continue the anti-inflammatories we’ve been giving you in pill form. Do you think you’ll be able to handle that schedule?”

“Yes,” Hunter said, watching her cap the end of the line. “I can set reminders on my phone. Maybe I’ll finally get one of those watches Emily always talks about.”

“Is Emily your caregiver?” The nurse started packing her things up and Hunter’s mind resisted this so strongly it was almost violent.

“No,” he said. “She’s my…” Hunter frowned. He wasn’t sure what she was to him, and it wasn’t because of the Alzheimer’s. They hadn’t talked about it, and Hunter couldn’t help being a little afraid of asking. He didn’t want her to think that the only reason he was with her was because she could help him, or because of the contacts that had brought him to this hotel room in the first place. Calling her his caretaker wasn’t accurate, and he didn’t want it to be. What he wanted was for her to be his girlfriend, or something like it, but if he asked her and she didn’t want to be, he ran the risk of losing her. Emily had only just started making his disease bearable, he didn’t want to drive her away by being presumptuous.

“We all need friends,” the nurse said with a smile. She zipped up her bag and put it over her shoulder. “Take the anti-nausea medication and the steroid, and rest. I hear there’s an NCIS marathon on one of the basic cable channels.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Hunter said. He stood up from the couch in the front half of his suite and walked the nurse to the door. The dizziness hadn’t hit him yet and he wanted to be polite while he still could. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be back in to check on you tomorrow.” She closed the door behind her and Hunter sighed as he went to the kitchenette and opened the refrigerator.

He’d been in Minneapolis for four days and hadn’t seen more than a grocery store, the Perrineau clinic, and a restaurant before he was too nauseous from the first treatment. The rest of the time had been spent in his hotel room watching television and talking with Emily as often as possible. She couldn’t exactly talk to him while she was at work so he’d had to content himself with reruns and trying to concentrate on a book he felt like he’d been reading for five years.

Thanks to the new medications, he didn’t experience the nausea he’d dealt with the first day of treatment but it also made him nod off. He couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago and the noise of the city. Minneapolis was busy, but not like Chicago. Hunter turned on the television and laid back on the bed with the remote, hoping he could find something more interesting than reality television, which was what he had been stuck watching the night before.

His phone rang and he woke with a start, looking around the unfamiliar room. The television was still on, but it was almost completely dark. The call went to voicemail and he picked up the phone to see who had called. It took him a minute to find his glasses, which he seemed to have taken off before he fell asleep, and when he put them on his phone was ringing again. This time it was a video call from Emily and he smiled and tried to rearrange his hair before answering.

“Hi!” She was immediately waving at him from his phone’s screen and he reached over to turn on the lamp by the side of the bed. “Were you asleep?”

“Just dozed off,” he said. “The meds they gave me for nausea keep making me fall asleep.” She looked pretty with her hair in a ponytail and a tank top with thin straps, and his mind wandered to kissing her in the kitchen before he’d left. “What are you up to?”

“Trying to decide what I’m making for dinner. I went ahead and made the stir fry without you the other night, I forgot to tell you. I read an article about onions getting toxic if you leave them out too long and I didn’t feel like getting food poisoning.” The background moved and he realized she was walking and talking. She stopped in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, pointing her phone at it. “It’s pretty empty but I didn’t want to go shopping without you.”

“There should be some frozen dinners,” Hunter said. “I keep some around for when I’m too foggy to cook.”

“Maybe I’ll get one.” She closed the refrigerator and sat down, presumably at the island. “How are things going other than the nausea?”

“Fine. I’ve been watching a lot of television. Last night I watched five hours of a show about people buying small houses,” he said with a yawn.

“Oh really? And how was it?”

“I don’t know, I’m beginning to think I should downsize. I’m going to have to once I can’t work, maybe I’ll buy a tiny house.” He stood up from the bed and went to the kitchenette to get a drink. They’d told him at the beginning of the treatment to stay hydrated so he’d bought several packs of sports drink and had been steadily making his way through them. “I slept for almost six hours in the middle of the day yesterday so I was up half the night.”

“Are you going to stay nauseous once you come back? I mean, are you going to have to keep taking the medication?” She reached up and scratched the side of her nose, then got up from the island and went to the pantry.

“I don’t think so. They did tell me what I’m going to have to do to maintain this treatment, though. I need to have an infusion once a month for maintenance and take a steroid. They said they could ship the infusion to me rather than having to come to Minnesota every time, if my doctor was comfortable administering it,” he said, sitting back on the bed. “Hang on, I have to put my phone down for a second to open this.” He set the phone on the nightstand and twisted the cap off his drink while Emily went on talking.

“You know, I do still have a medical license. I could give it to you at home, no problem. I’d just need to get some basic supplies, but I’ll bet Karen would ship those along with the medication.” She took something out of the pantry and shook it, then closed the door and started walking again. Hunter couldn’t help smiling. “What?”

“Did you just refer to my house as ‘home?’”

“I guess I did,” Emily said. Her image started bobbing as she went up the stairs. “It was just force of habit, since I’ve been here so long. Hopefully the insurance company will get back to me soon.”

“I meant it when I said you could stay as long as you wanted. I’m happy to have you,” Hunter said. “I’m also fine if you want to call it home. I’m glad you feel that way.” He was more than glad, he was close to being overjoyed. Since Robin had gotten a place of her own, his house had sometimes felt too big for him. Emily and the cat had brought life to it again and he didn’t want her to go.

“I’m glad I didn’t offend you.” She had reached the guest room and leaned under the bed. The mother cat, who looked considerably more well-fed since he’d met her, looked up from where she was curled around her kittens. “Mimi and the babies are happy to hear it too. The last one opened its eyes.”

“The little one you’re calling Pipsqueak?” Emily nodded and he smiled. “I like that one. You should name the others.”

“It’s a work in progress.” She stood up again and turned off the light. “So if your last treatment is tomorrow, are you still coming home Saturday?” She’d said it again and he couldn’t stop smiling.

“Yes. You’ll be able to pick me up, right? Since you’ll be off work?”

“Of course. Even if I wasn’t, I’d come pick you up.” Emily sat on the bed she and Hunter now shared and leaned against the headboard. “I suppose I’ll let you go for now. I’m going to eat this entire box of Wheat Thins and go to bed.”

“Don’t go just yet,” Hunter said, sitting up. Emily raised an eyebrow at him.

“Why? You want me to talk dirty to you?” She pulled one strap of her tank top down so that her shoulder was bare and Hunter laughed. That actually would have been more than fine with him but he didn’t want to admit it.

“I’d rather wait until we can do something about it,” he said. Emily smirked but didn’t pull up her strap, which was also fine with him. “It’s still difficult for me to believe that anyone still wants to sleep with me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emily said. “Who wouldn’t want to sleep with you? You’re handsome, you love cats, you’re dedicated, intelligent, and very kind.”

“Intelligent,” he snorted, setting down his drink. “If you’re trying to make me laugh, you’re going to have to try harder.”

“You’re still very intelligent,” Emily said, the smile disappearing from her face. “A few misplaced words and wrong turns in the car aren’t enough to take that from you. And I very much want to sleep with you.”

“This disease,” he began, then lost the words he was thinking. “It steals so much, over and over. I can’t even remember what I was about to say to you. I can’t remember the name of the nurse who came over today, so I’m going to have to wait until she introduces herself again tomorrow. It makes me feel like I’m completely separate from other people and like I should stay away from them. I have this fear that if they get too close I’m going to infect them. I honestly never thought I’d have sex again.”

“You don’t have to punish yourself for being sick,” Emily said with a sigh. “Before you say that’s not what you’re doing, it is. And I plan on having so much sex with you that you’re going to beg me to let you up for air.”

“Maybe a little dirty talk is all right,” Hunter said, and Emily laughed.

“All right,” she said pulling down her other strap. “A little taste of what I have in mind.” She started to pull the neck of her top down to reveal the tops of her breasts and Hunter leaned back against the headboard again. This was exactly what he needed.

The Absence of Intellect – Ten

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“You know, I’ve never cooked with anyone before,” Emily said, bringing a bowl of freshly peeled mangoes to the kitchen island. “It seems like everyone I’ve ever been with found out I liked cooking and just left me to it.”

“I used to cook with my wife all the time,” Hunter said, taking a mango from the bowl and putting it on the cutting board. “Ellen had this huge collection of old cookbooks that she got from somewhere, a relative or maybe a bookstore.” He frowned at the mango. “I can’t quite remember. But she liked to try new things and it was good for me. Good for Robin too. She was the only eight-year-old in her class that would eat sushi.” He sighed. “Or six. She might have been six.”

“I’m glad you were open to trying this,” said Emily with a smile. “So many people hear fruit and beans in the same sentence and hit the brakes.”

“Well, I can’t remember if I’ve ever eaten black bean mango stir-fry but I like black beans and I like mango, so it was worth trying again if I have.” He cut the mango into cubes so precise that Emily could easily see the scientist in him showing through. She smiled and went to the sink to drain the beans that were ready on the stove.

It had been a week since she’d discovered that the neural bridge was never going to be a reality, and she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a failure. She was having a hard time concentrating on the new drug because all she could think about was what to do next with the neural bridge.

Thanks to her sister’s condition, she had collected a number of neurology contacts that she had been reaching out to over the last week, hoping that someone would have something that could help Hunter. She rinsed the beans once more and set them aside in the colander just as Hunter turned around with the bowl of mango.

“Here you go,” he said. “That’s the last of it, right?”

“Yeah. Bell peppers, mangos, onions and beans. Now, let’s see,” Emily said, picking up the magazine she’d set on the counter. “Okay, now we sauté the onions and bell peppers.” Hunter took the olive oil from the cabinet by the stove and turned on the burner.

“I’ll heat the oil, you go ahead and start the rice,” he said. Emily nodded and went to the pantry to find where he kept his rice. There were three glass containers on one of the shelves and she leaned back out and looked at Hunter.

“You have three kinds of rice?”

“I told you, I like cooking. It’s one of the only things I can still do without too many problems. Maybe sometime I’ll show you some of my recipes.” He poured the oil into the pan without bothering to measure it.

“Ones you’ve made yourself?” Emily picked the jasmine rice and took the jar to the island. Hunter nodded at her. “That’s impressive,” she said. Hunter turned to her and put his hands on her waist, pulling her to him. “Shouldn’t you be watching the oil?”

“It’s low heat,” he said with a devious-looking smile. Emily put her arms around his neck and returned the smile.

“What are you doing?”

“This.” He kissed her and pulled her close enough that they were pressed together, and as his tongue brushed against hers Emily wished she could melt into him. Instead she pulled away a little, gently tugging at his lower lip as she did. Hunter met her eyes and she smiled at him. “You’re so beautiful when your cheeks are red like that.”

“I’ve always blushed too easily,” Emily replied. “Everyone always knows what I’m thinking.” Hunter swayed with her.

“What are you thinking right now?”

“I think you can guess.” This time it was her turn to kiss him and Hunter didn’t waste any time. He met her enthusiasm with his own, reaching down to squeeze her bottom and pull her to him. It had been some time since Emily had been kissed quite so forcefully and she suddenly wanted to wrap her legs around him. She could feel his hardness against her and her body ached for him to be inside her. One of his hands moved slowly up her side beneath her shirt and he had barely had a chance to put his hand on her breast when Emily’s phone rang on the kitchen table.

“Leave it,” Hunter said into her ear, and Emily nodded. He slid his hand under her bra and brushed his thumb over her nipple. “Emily. I want to—” He was interrupted by the acrid smell of burning oil and let go of her. “Dammit!” Hunter turned back to the stove, which was now smoking, while Emily tried to catch her breath.

She had a feeling she knew what he had been about to say, and knew that her answer would be yes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had wanted someone as much as she wanted Hunter at that moment, and she took a step toward him to tell him to forget dinner when the smoke detector went off with a deafening shriek.

All thoughts of sex disappeared from her mind as she rushed to the patio door to open it and let the smoke out. Hunter fanned the pan with the magazine as Emily sighed. The alarm was like a knife through her head and she took the magazine from Hunter and continued to fan the smoke toward the open door while he went to disable the smoke alarm. As soon as it was silent again in the kitchen, Hunter shook his head.

“Sorry about that,” he said. He went to the stove and looked at the pan. “The oil is completely burned onto the bottom of the pan. I’m going to have to soak this before we can use it again.” He looked over at Emily. “We could always just forget dinner and pick up where we left off.” Emily was about to tell him that she was thinking the same thing, but she was interrupted by her phone ringing again. They both looked at it and she went to the table.

“Hold that thought.” The number on the screen was from Minnesota and Emily’s heart stopped for a moment. She only knew one person in Minnesota and she was the only person that could take her mind off Hunter. “Hello?”

“Emily, hi,” Dr. Karen Westbrook said. “I’m sorry to call you twice but it’s really important and I didn’t want to leave a message.

“It’s no problem,” Emily said. “I was just making dinner. Please tell me you’re calling to tell me you have something that can help my friend.” She wasn’t sure if Hunter would want her to call him her boyfriend – if that was even what he was – or that the brilliant Hunter Chambers was slowly drifting away so she’d told Karen that he was a friend. It wasn’t a lie, necessarily. He just happened to be the kind of friend that she wanted to throw her on the kitchen table and kiss every inch of her body.

“As a matter of fact, I am. I’ve been working on a new medication that works completely differently than the current generation of Alzheimer’s drugs. I just got the final approval to start clinical trials and I’ll be administering the first treatments tomorrow. One of the participants had to drop out at the last minute and I was wondering if your friend would want to take his place,” Karen said. “It would help me out and hopefully slow down his disease progression.”

“Thank you Karen, this is such good news. I’m certain he will,” Emily said. “Let me hand the phone to him.” Hunter looked at her curiously and Emily pressed mute. “My friend Karen works in research, and she’s got a spot in a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s treatment. She wants to know if you’d be willing to take it.”

“Yes,” Hunter said immediately. “Of course I do!”

“Talk to her, then,” Emily said, handing him the phone. “She can give you the details.” He unmuted her phone and put it to his ear.

“This is Hunter Chambers,” he said, then sighed. “Yes, that Hunter Chambers.” He listened to Karen while Emily started putting the cut fruit and vegetables into plastic storage containers. She moved slowly so she could eavesdrop as she did. “I’d love to participate, can you send me the details? I’d write them down but my handwriting is damn near illegible this late in the day. What time do you need me there?” Emily snapped the storage container with the mangoes in it closed. “I’ll be there. Thank you so much, Doctor.” He held the phone out to Emily, and she took it.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” she said. “Hopefully your treatment works.”

“Me too. Dr. Chambers didn’t give me his information to send the details, can you send it to me?”

“Send it to my email,” Emily said. “You still have it, right?”

“Your personal one? Sure. It’s probably a good idea for me to send it to you anyway, if his memory problems have advanced to the point you described he might accidentally delete it or forget about it. He’s lucky he has you to look out for him.” Emily smiled at her friend’s words, then looked at Hunter. “Could you do me a favor and not use his real name?”

“Of course,” Karen said. “I can arrange for him to be given the treatment privately as well, and list him under a generic name. His identity will be fully protected. Will you be coming with him?”

“No, I’ve got work to do here. Take care of him for me, Karen.”

“Absolutely. Talk to you soon.” She hung up and Emily turned her attention to Hunter, who was looking down at the counter and gripping it with both hands.

“Are you all right?” She went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Hunter looked over at her and nodded, just as her phone vibrated to let her know she’d received an email. She opened her email app and saw a message from Karen with an attachment. “Here’s the information,” Emily said, opening the document. “They’re going to need you at the Perrineau Clinic tomorrow morning at 8:30. Karen said they could do the treatment privately, but you should still be there for the orientation. No one has to know that you’re there for the trial.”

“If I have to be there first thing in the morning, I’m going to have to leave right now,” Hunter said. He had a sort of dazed look on his face and Emily smiled at him. “I can’t believe it. This is all happening so quickly.”

“That’s a good thing,” Emily said. “Why don’t we forget dinner and go upstairs. I’ll find you some plane tickets and a hotel reservation while you pack. The first part of the trial is going to take five to seven days, so you’ll need a suitcase. I’ll help you stay on task.”

“Thanks,” Hunter said. He offered her a hand and Emily took it, then walked with him to the stairs. “I’m going to need a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, and uh, something else. Right?”

“Probably a rental car,” Emily said. “Which might be a bad idea, honestly. You shouldn’t be trying to navigate around an unfamiliar city. Public transportation might be just as bad, so the best thing might be to just use something like Uber.” They went up the stairs hand in hand, and Hunter nodded.

“You’re right. Would you mind driving me to the airport? It’ll probably be a lot faster than taking the train.”

“Of course,” Emily said. “Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

“I know,” Hunter said, stopping in the middle of the stairs. Emily looked at him curiously and he took two steps down so they were face to face. “Thank you, Emily. You’ve given me hope.” She hugged him, then leaned forward and rested her forehead against his.

“No matter what happens, I’ll be here when you come back,” she said. Hunter took her hands in his and kissed them. “Let’s get you packed.” Hunter nodded and Emily pulled him up the stairs, hoping that it would work. They wouldn’t know right away but what he needed was time. The treatment could give him that. “Any preference on hotels and airlines?”

“I think I have a frequent flyer number for one of them,” Hunter said, frowning. “Not sure which one, though.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Emily said, hoping he understood that she meant more than just the numbers. “We’ll figure it all out.”

 

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.

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.”