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The Absence of Intellect – Seven

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It wasn’t his alarm that woke Hunter in the morning, it was the smell of bacon frying. It took him a moment to remember that he wasn’t alone in the house, and he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes, then felt for his glasses on the nightstand and put them on. With a yawn, he slid out of bed and grabbed a t-shirt from the side of the hamper where he’d hung it before bed. He followed the aromas and sounds of breakfast to the kitchen, where he was stopped in his tracks when he saw Emily.

She had her back to him, and he was surprised by the colorful tattoo that covered the entirety of her shoulders that was visible. It looked like it was a riot of flowers and it made him wonder what the rest of it was. Her hair was in a ponytail that bounced on the back of her neck as she moved to the music only she could hear from her headphones, and even though she was wearing a pair of Robin’s flannel pajama pants she looked nice.

Emily turned to the island to tip the bacon onto two plates and jumped when she saw Hunter standing in the doorway staring at her. She put the pan back on the stove, pulled the earphones out of her ears and set them on the counter. Hunter held his hands up.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I just can’t seem to stop startling you.”

“It’s your house,” she said. “Besides, I should have expected it. I just woke up with a song stuck in my head. Thank you for the phone charger, by the way.”

“You can keep it if you want. I just got a new phone, so I’ve got one for almost every outlet at this point.” He nodded at the two plates. In addition to the bacon, there were scrambled eggs and what looked like homemade hash browns. “This looks amazing. Did you make the potatoes?”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “They were going to be home fries but I changed my mind at the last minute. Your cheese grater is soaking in the sink, by the way.”

“I have a cheese grater?” This was news to Hunter, and he wasn’t sure if he hadn’t known about it or just didn’t remember. Emily nodded and picked up the plates, then took them to the kitchen table and set them across from each other. She took a bowl of fruit out of the refrigerator and set it in the middle of the table. “I can’t remember the last time someone made me breakfast,” Hunter said. “I don’t really know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Emily said. “I like cooking.” She poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table. “Have a seat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.” Hunter sat down and smiled as she sat across from him and picked up her fork. “Did you sleep all right?”

“Much better than I expected,” Emily replied. “I thought I was going to be up all night, but I guess I was worn out from everything that happened.” She watched Hunter take a bite of his hash browns anxiously.

“They’re great,” he said with a smile. Emily seemed to relax and took a bite of her own food. “I’m glad you cut up the fruit, too. I keep buying it and then forgetting about it until it basically turns to mush in my crisper. My housekeeper probably hates me.”

“I love fruit,” Emily said. “It’s so expensive, though.” She reached for the bowl just as Hunter did, and their fingers touched as they both went for the same piece of cantaloupe. A shiver went down his back, though not an unpleasant one, and their eyes met. He didn’t think he’d ever noticed that her eyes were hazel, either that or he hadn’t really been looking. Emily turned bright red and pulled her hand back, much to Hunter’s dismay. He would have liked to take her hand, even if it was just for a few seconds. “Sorry,” she said. They fell into a clumsy silence as they ate their breakfast and Hunter tried to think of something to say.

“So,” he said, taking the cantaloupe, “what’s the plan for today?”

“I’ve got to go see if my place has been cleared for me to go inside and assess the damage. If it’s still off-limits I need to go get some clothes, which means I at least have to figure out a way to get my wallet.” She sighed heavily. “I also have to make a trip to St. Cecilia’s,” she said, then smiled at him in what he hoped he wasn’t misinterpreting as a mischievous way. “Then tonight I have a date with a very handsome scientist.”

“A date, you say? I’ll try not to get in the way,” Hunter said with a half-smile. Emily smirked and took a sip of her coffee. “By the way, I’ve been wondering. Why do you live in a townhouse with college students on the other side of you?”

“I live by myself,” Emily said, looking down at her plate. “There’s no reason for me to spend money on a big place.” Hunter got the feeling that she wasn’t being completely honest but even though he was sitting in his kitchen in his pajamas with Emily, he didn’t feel like he had the right to push. “I may be in the market for a new place, though.”

“You can stay here as long as you like,” he said, picking up a forkful of eggs. “Especially if I’m going to get meals like this once in a while.”

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, smiling up at him. “I looked up the restaurant yesterday and it’s really nice. Even if my house wasn’t currently smoldering, I was going to have to buy a dress. I thought you had to have reservations for Cerise.”

“You do if your former wife’s brother isn’t the owner.” This made Emily almost choke on the mouthful of eggs she was eating. She swallowed hard and laughed out loud. “I didn’t get this far in life without using connections every now and then. Plus, I wanted to impress you.”

“You did?” Emily looked surprised, but she was smiling. “Now I feel even sillier sitting here in your daughter’s pajamas.” Hunter was about to tell her that she looked beautiful but she went on before he could. “How old is she?”

“She just turned 25, about a month or so ago,” Hunter said. “It was a new memory loss milestone for me, I forgot my own daughter’s birthday.”

“That’s not so bad,” Emily said encouragingly. “Normal people forget birthdays all the time. I still can’t remember if my father’s birthday is June 8th or 18th.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“No, it’s true! I have to put an alert in my phone to remind me to text him.” She finished her breakfast and wiped her mouth. “I’m going to go up and get dressed,” Emily said. “When you get finished, leave your plate in the sink and I’ll wash them.”

“I’m done,” Hunter said, finishing the last of his hash browns. “You don’t have to wash my dishes, the housekeeper will be coming later and she actually gets offended when there’s nothing for her to do.”

“Don’t be silly,” Emily said, leaning down to pick up his plate. He realized that she was closer to him than she’d ever been before, and he put a hand on hers. She looked up at him, surprised, and her lips parted slightly, making him want more than anything to kiss her. Hunter was relieved when she didn’t back away, and he was reaching up to pull her closer when his front door opened.

“Dr. Chambers?” A woman’s voice called out in the living room and Hunter dropped his hand. Emily straightened and looked back to see who was there. An older woman with a long braid of white hair came through the kitchen door. “I’m sorry to show up unannounced, but I had a cancellation and thought I’d get an early start.”

“Not a problem,” Hunter said, thinking to himself that it was a huge problem. “Patricia, I’d like you to meet Dr. Ashton. She’s going to be staying in the guest room here for a little while, so if you wouldn’t mind going through there when you come that would be great.”

“Of course not,” Patricia said with a smile, taking an apron from the peg on the back of the pantry door. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. Please feel free to leave any clothes you want me to wash in the hamper.”

“Sure,” Emily said as Patricia took the plates out of her hands. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. I come three times a week. If there’s anything you need in particular, anything you need from the store, just leave me a note.” She went to the sink and Emily looked at Hunter, then pointed at the stairs.

“I’m just going to go get dressed. I’ve got to get home and try to get my wallet.”

“Wait,” Hunter said, getting up from the table so quickly that his coffee nearly tipped over. He followed Emily to the stairs. “Where do you live? Do you want a ride?”

“Roscoe Village,” she said. “It’s no big deal, though, I live right off the Brown Line.”

“I’d really like to take you home,” Hunter said. “Please? I’d consider it a personal favor.” Emily paused at the top of the stairs and raised an eyebrow at him.

“You really want to drive me across town so I won’t ride the trains?”

“I want to drive you across town to save you the forty minutes it’ll take for you to get to the fire station and get your wallet.” Hunter looked at her, hoping that what was left of his charm would convince her. “You know, I need to go up to Apogee and pick up some files. It would be on my way.” Emily started walking again and shook her head.

“Fine,” she said. “You just don’t give up, do you?”

“It’s one of my remaining talents,” Hunter said. “You said your day was packed, I’m just trying to save you some time. Wouldn’t want you to be late for dinner.” She smirked at him, then reached up and tapped his nose.

“Go put on pants,” she said, opening the door to the guest room. “I’m going to make a fashion statement by wearing last night’s clothes. The kind I usually make the night after I leave someone’s house in the morning.”

“You technically are leaving a guy’s house in the morning,” Hunter said as she closed the door. He smiled and went down to his room, feeling like he’d won something.

Even though he was just taking her across town he wanted to look nice, so he picked out a pair of dark jeans and a thin sweater. He really didn’t need to go to the lab but spending a little extra time with Emily was worth the lie. Now that he knew what it was like to be around her outside work, he wanted to be with her as much as possible.

He waited for her by the door with his keys in hand, and when she came down the stairs his heart sped up. She looked lighter than the night before and he tried to figure out why that was. Emily smiled up at him, and he realized that without the heels she usually wore to work she was several inches shorter than he was used to seeing her.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaving my backpack here,” she said. “I don’t need any of the stuff in it and it’s heavy.”

“Of course not,” Hunter said, leading her out to his car. “It’ll be safe here. What about your computer?” Emily patted the slim case that was on her hip.

“I do need this. It’s got a full inventory of my house for insurance purposes, and some of my research. I bring it anytime I might have to sit in a waiting room.” She got into the passenger seat and buckled her seatbelt. “I know I was being a pain in the ass about you giving me a ride, but thanks. I’m not used to accepting help from anyone.”

“Don’t consider it help, then,” Hunter said, starting the car. “Consider it a personal favor for an old scientist who’s falling apart at the seams.”

“You said the favor part already. And you’re not old,” Emily said with a smile. “You can’t possibly be more than forty-five.”

“First of all, I’m flattered,” Hunter said as he backed out of the driveway. “Second, how old exactly do you think I was when Robin was born?”

“Twenty? People have kids when they’re still in college,” Emily said, taking out her phone. Hunter couldn’t help laughing.

“Next month I’m going to be fifty-four.” He shook his head. “Twenty. You’re going to have to give me directions to where I’m going. My GPS finally died for good last week and I haven’t had a chance to get another.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Emily said. “Let me put it in my phone. I don’t know the streets out here as well as I do the ones around Addison.” She pulled up her mapping app and went about finding directions while Hunter drove, grateful for the fact that he was still sharpest in the morning.

Once he’d dropped Emily off with the promise of seeing her back at his house before their date, he decided he might as well go to Apogee and check his messages. They always managed to get away from him over the weekend. On the way, his phone rang and he answered it on the Bluetooth.

“Hello?”

“Dr. Chambers,” a familiar voice said. “I’m sorry to call you on the weekend but you wanted me to call you as soon as we knew anything about the combination medication.”

“Yes, of course,” he said, sitting forward. “When can I pick it up?”

“I’m going to be flying out this evening, but I’ll be up at the hospital for another couple of hours. If you can make it over here, I’ll be happy to give you some of the samples we use for the clinical trials. Off the books, of course.” The man on the other end sounded distracted and Hunter gripped the steering wheel tighter.

“I’ll be there.” He hung up the phone by pressing the button on his steering wheel, then headed for the nearest electronics store. Someone with his memory problems was only going to get in trouble driving around Chicago without a GPS, and he wasn’t going to risk missing his date with Emily. He just hoped he’d have good news to give her when he saw her again.

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The Absence of Intellect – Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you said you had plans tonight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Absence of Intellect – Five

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“Good morning, Dr. Haynes,” one of the research assistants said as the head of the pharmaceutical research department stepped out of the elevator just in front of Emily. She kept her eyes on her phone so it looked as if she didn’t care that the assistant didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence. “Can I get you some coffee?”

“Sure,” Dr. Haynes said. “Black, two sugars.” He glanced over his shoulder at Emily, then kept walking without a word.

Since they worked in the same department, Emily was forced to walk behind him to get to her corner of the lab and endure the steady stream of greetings directed to Dr. Hayes. Not a single person in the lab said hello to her, and as much as she wanted to pretend she didn’t care about it there was a part of her that wanted to be popular. She’d had more than a few friends in school, and her parents had supported her in everything she wanted to do. When she’d worked at the hospital, she’d been one of the top surgeons. Here she was a pariah because she’d dared to show compassion, but she couldn’t leave until she’d at least mapped out the framework for the neural bridge.

It was a relief to finally get to her lab and shut the door behind her, and she swapped her backpack for her lab coat on the peg before using the app on her phone to start playing the dubstep channel at top volume. If her presence wouldn’t keep her coworkers out of the lab, the music almost certainly would.

Emily booted up the computer and logged in, thinking about the day before with a new perspective. It was entirely possible that the reason Hunter hadn’t wanted to log in to her computer was that he couldn’t remember his credentials. She wasn’t sure how he was getting into the intranet if that was the case but she wasn’t about to ask. The last thing she wanted was to embarrass him further, or herself for that matter. She still couldn’t believe she’d told him she found him attractive. It would be a miracle if he wanted to be alone in a room with her after that alone, not to mention the times she’d unintentionally made him feel uncomfortable.

She was just about to sit down at her desk when a loud knock got her attention and she turned to see Hunter opening the door. Her heart began to beat faster and she smiled as she used her watch to turn down the music.

“Sorry,” she said. “If I’d known you were coming down I wouldn’t have had it up so loud.”

“It’s no problem,” Hunter said. “I made sure to knock this time, though. The last thing I want is for you to associate me with jumping out of your skin.”

“I appreciate that,” Emily said. “I’m actually glad you came down, Dr. Chambers. I wanted to say that I’m really sorry about last night. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t,” Hunter said. “If anything, I should apologize for just showing up at your house and for all the times I’ve snapped at you. It seems like my temper has gotten shorter lately.” He sighed. “Or maybe I’m just frustrated.”

“It’s understandable,” Emily said, turning to her computer and typing in a few commands. “I was a neurologist for almost ten years before I came here. I’ve seen first hand the way Alzheimer’s erodes your emotional stability as well as your memory.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Not yours specifically, just in general.”

“You were a neurologist?”

“Yes,” Emily said with a smile. “I was affiliated with St. Cecilia’s Hospital. Their neurology department is the best in Illinois, and I had this hope that one day I could be a neurosurgeon so I observed as many surgeries as I could.”

“I can’t believe you gave up a career as a neurosurgeon to come work for Apogee,” Hunter said, shaking his head. Emily laughed and clicked on her email program.

“Your talk was extremely convincing.” She scanned the list of messages but didn’t see the name she was looking for, and closed the window again. It was meant as a joke but Hunter’s silence gave her the impression that he wasn’t taking it as such, and she opened her mouth to apologize.

“At the risk of being inappropriate, I was wondering if you’d have dinner with me,” he said, surprising her. Emily blinked at him in disbelief. “You can say no, it won’t hurt my feelings.”

“No, no,” Emily said quickly. “I’d love to have dinner with you.”

“Great!” Hunter grinned at her, making her blush. He’d always had more of a reserved smile on his face when she’d seen him and this open, genuine one suited him more. “For a minute I thought you were going to make me feel like I was back in high school.” Emily looked at him curiously and he shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly the most popular guy. I was quiet and more than a little awkward.”

“Popularity is overrated,” Emily said. “You may not have noticed, but I’m not especially popular around here either.”

“Why is that? You’re a nice person and your ideas are revolutionary. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to work with you.” He walked around the tiny lab and Emily sighed.

“It’s possibly the most ridiculous reason you could think of,” she said. “Really just popular kid lunchroom crap that only halfway grew up.” Hunter watched her expectantly, and Emily couldn’t help noticing just how blue his eyes were. “It’s because I won’t experiment on animals.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah. I don’t like it and I feel like the same results can be achieved with simulations and human tissue cultures. Sometimes even better results, and with better results we can go straight to clinical trials as long as we give full disclosure and have airtight waivers for the participants.” She shook her head. “I know that makes me sound like some animal rights activist, but it’s how I feel.”

“First, do no harm,” Hunter said. “The difference between a medical doctor and a scientific one, I suppose. I don’t see why that would make people not want to work with you.”

“Because they think my methods would have adverse effects on their projects. Keep them from getting FDA approval, stall them in the research phase for years, that sort of thing.” She folded her arms over her chest. “That thinking just spreads like a virus in a small environment like this one.”

“So why do you stay? There are plenty of companies that would love to have you and your methods. Why did you give up being a neurologist?” His words sent a chill down Emily’s back. He’d asked the same question less than ten minutes earlier but she could tell that he didn’t remember asking it, much less the answer.

“We can talk more about it at dinner,” Emily said, afraid of embarrassing him again. She really did want to go out with him, and hoped that if they spent more time together and talked more, he wouldn’t be so sensitive about his condition. “Where do you want to go?”

“There’s a nice place called Cerise that’s on the Mile,” Hunter said. “I went there for dinner with some drug reps from Borkin Pharma and it had great shrimp. If you like shrimp, I mean. I know some people don’t like shrimp. They have other dishes there if you’re not a fan of shellfish.” Emily tried her best not to laugh but she couldn’t suppress a smile. “Apparently I haven’t outgrown all of my unfortunate teenage awkwardness.”

“I prefer to think of it as a sort of boyish charm.” She picked up her phone and unlocked it. “And I love shrimp. Let me give you my number so you can put it in your phone. You already have my address.” This made Hunter smile. He took out his own phone and offered it to her. When Emily took it, she brushed his fingers with hers, making just enough contact to send a spark of electricity up her arm. She typed her name and phone number into his address book, then looked up at him. “Do you want to try and set something up now?”

“Sure,” Hunter said. “Tonight?”

“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “I’ve got plans tonight and probably tomorrow.” She regretted having to tell him she couldn’t see him so soon, but a night of work could make or break her research. Melissa was counting on her to finish it, she couldn’t stop until it was done. “Saturday?”

“Fine with me,” he replied. “Could I talk you into coffee before then?”

“Well, since you’re twisting my arm,” Emily said with a grin. “I happen to be free for a few minutes at the end of my lunch break. I have an errand to run during lunch, but I can make time for coffee.” She handed him back his phone. “Only for you.”

“My day’s looking up, then.” He dropped his phone back into his pocket and headed for the door, much to Emily’s disappointment. Seeing him at lunch would make up for it, and she used her watch to turn the music back up. Hunter stuck his head back into the lab. “I don’t think I said it before, but I’m sorry for my behavior last night,” he shouted over the music. Emily forced herself to smile.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. Hunter looked relieved as he ducked back out and Emily rubbed her temples hard enough to hurt. She couldn’t keep acting like he wasn’t repeating himself but she also didn’t want to upset him. It was a fine line, and not one she had ever expected to walk, especially not with Hunter. With a sigh, she dropped back into her chair. Splitting her time between the neural bridge and the new drug was going to be the death of her. At least I have dinner to look forward to, she thought as she pulled up the data for the cholinesterase inhibitor. I just have to make it to Saturday night.

The Absence of Intellect – Four

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Irritated with himself beyond belief, Hunter slammed the car door when he got back to his house. It didn’t matter that it couldn’t change anything that had happened, it made him feel better. The worst part of it was that Emily seemed to always be getting the brunt of his temper, even though she was the one who was going to try her best to help him. He should have been thanking her, not snapping at her, but he seemed to be getting more emotional lately and he didn’t particularly care for it.

He unlocked his door without incident and walked past the alarm keypad. He’d stopped setting it after the third time the police had come out because he couldn’t remember the alarm code or the security password, so there was no need to stop. Hunter threw his keys into the bowl on the table so he’d remember where they were in the morning, took off his jacket and tossed it over the back of one of the dining room chairs, then went into the kitchen and opened the freezer. His phone rang in his pocket as he was pouring himself a glass of vodka and he took it out, fully intending to turn it off, then saw who was calling and put it to his ear instead.

“Hi, Robin.”

“Hi, Dad!” His daughter’s voice came through the phone and made him smile. He could always count on Robin to be relentlessly cheerful. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No, sweetheart, I just got home and was pouring myself a drink.” He took a drink and heard her sigh.

“Are you supposed to be drinking with your medication?” She didn’t give him a chance to respond before she spoke again. “What am I talking about, of course you aren’t. You’re the most stubborn person I know, and I work with toddlers.”

“The way you say it makes it sound like a bad thing,” Hunter said, deciding not to go into the details of why he was at Emily’s house. He’d gotten so excited about the idea of the neural bridge that finding out it would take years to develop felt like he was getting diagnosed all over again. “And before you ask, I wasn’t at work, I was at a friend’s house.”

“Good,” Robin said. “You don’t need to stress yourself out. I know—” She was interrupted by a crash loud enough to make Hunter jump. “Itsy! I’ve got to go, Dad, Itsy just knocked over the fish tank and there’s gravel everywhere.”

“Go take care of it before your carpet gets ruined,” Hunter said, picking up his glass. “I told you that dog was a mistake.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Robin said. “Good night, Dad.”

“Good night,” Hunter said, then hung up and set his phone on the counter. As much as he loved his daughter, she had developed a maddening tendency to treat him like one of her students since his diagnosis. He tipped a little more vodka into his glass and took a drink.

Hunter leaned on the counter and thought about how he’d left Emily’s house. This time he had not only bitten her head off, but he’d run away from her house as if he was trying to escape his failing memory. He’d gone there to apologize and ended up making himself feel even worse. The dementia wasn’t her fault. In fact, she was trying to help him. It would have been easy to look up her phone number to call and apologize again but going to her house had already felt like an invasion of privacy. Instead he swirled his drink around in his glass and looked into it.

The most unexpected part of the whole thing had been her saying she thought he was attractive. She’d said it so casually, as if she handed out compliments every day, and it had made him feel better than he had in months. Hunter chuckled.

Good-looking, huh? I haven’t heard that in a long time. He tried to remember the last time someone had said it, and the only thing he could come up with was his wife telling him he looked handsome on their wedding day. He was fairly sure she’d said it before then, and certain she’d said it since, but she’d been gone long enough that time and Alzheimer’s were starting to steal little chunks of the days they’d had together.

He hardly knew anything about Emily, apart from her work on the cholinesterase inhibitor and now her neural bridge concept. He knew she liked cats, and that she had questionable taste in music, but he didn’t know why the other scientists at the lab were so happy to be rid of her, or why she was so interested in dementia treatment in the first place. All he knew was that she wasn’t bad-looking herself and she seemed kind. She almost always wore the same clothes under her lab coat, and her hair was twisted up in an unassuming knot, but the simplicity made it more appealing to him. Hunter finished his drink and set his glass in the sink.

First thing he’d do when he got to work in the morning was apologize to Emily for real. He didn’t want to alienate her the way he’d been doing to the rest of the people in his life, and he wanted to show her that he didn’t only want to be around her because of what she could possibly do for him. She was the only person who knew about his disease, and he trusted her. Hunter went up the stairs to his bedroom, then turned around and went back down to make sure he hadn’t forgotten to lock the door. It had become something of a nightly ritual for him, one he was tired of. By the time he finally got into bed, he’d checked the front door three more times.

As he started to fall asleep, Hunter’s mind began to wander and he wondered if it was the dementia or the normal driftings of a tired mind. He rolled over so his back was to the window. He would give anything to be free of this disease. Anything at all.

The Absence of Intellect – Three

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At least three times a week, often more, Emily’s neighbors had friends over. Since she shared a wall with them, she got to hear their muffled voices shouting about sports, games they were playing, and once or twice she’d heard them singing. That wasn’t even counting the dancing or the smell of marijuana that sometimes came through her vent. It didn’t really bother her unless it went on past midnight, which was rare.

She was in the kitchen washing the cat’s food bowl when the doorbell rang, and she turned off the water and dried her hands on the kitchen towel before going to answer it. Once in a while her neighbors came over to apologize for the noise or offer her a beer, but she still checked the Nest app on her phone to see who it was. To her surprise, it wasn’t Rich or Evan on her doorstep, it was Hunter Chambers. She opened the door immediately.

“Dr. Chambers,” she said, at a loss for why her boss would be at her house at eleven at night. “What are you doing here?”

“Mind if I come in?” Hunter looked exhausted. Emily nodded and stepped aside. “Thanks.”

“You want something to drink? I just made cinnamon cocoa.”

“Sure.” He seemed preoccupied, but followed Emily into the kitchen. She poured two mugs of cocoa and handed him one, then leaned on the counter. She felt more than a little self-conscious in her flannel pajama pants and tank top, especially since he was still wearing the same suit he’d been wearing at the lab, but if Hunter noticed he didn’t mention it.

“So what can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry to come by so late,” he said, lifting the mug to his lips. “I got your address from your HR file. It’s inappropriate, I know, but there’s something I wanted to talk to you about and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it at work.”

“It’s no big deal,” Emily said. She couldn’t help being a little excited. She’d never even considered the idea that he would be helping her with her laboratory, much less coming to her house. “I’ve always wanted a late-night visit from a good-looking doctor.” Emily felt herself instantly turning red. She had no idea what had made her say it but Hunter didn’t seem to have noticed. “What’s going on?” He took a deep breath and looked down at his cocoa. “Dr. Chambers?”

“I want to apologize for the way I behaved earlier. There was no excuse for my taking my stress out on you.” His words made Emily smile, glad that he was at least acknowledging what had happened.

“It’s all right,” Emily said, smiling. “The doctor I used to work for used to throw things at the wall when he was mad, and I was just glad I got out of there before he started throwing them at us. I suppose it’s the price of working with geniuses.”

“That’s a joke,” he said bitterly.

“What is?”

“What’s the first thing you think about when you think of me, about Apogee Labs?” It was an odd question but Emily didn’t want to push him too hard for fear he’d shut down.

“Let’s see, the first time I saw you speak was at a conference in Evanston. It was right before I applied to Apogee. You were talking about the use of anticonvulsants to treat other conditions because they targeted similar areas of the brain, and the potential for creating a next-generation medication. I was so impressed. I applied to Apogee before I even checked out of my hotel.” She smiled. “That’s probably what I associate you with the most.”

“If I told you that I not only don’t remember that lecture, but what area of the brain seizure medication affects, that would change your opinion of me, wouldn’t it?” He was finally getting at it and Emily shook her head.

“Not really. It was three years ago. It’s impossible for everyone to remember everything they’ve ever done.” She nodded toward the living room. “Come on, let’s go sit down.” Hunter didn’t argue. He followed her through the kitchen and into a rather spacious living room. It was, however, the wall she shared with her neighbors and they seemed to be getting rowdy.

“Sounds like they’re enjoying themselves over there,” Hunter commented and Emily sighed as she sat down on the couch.

“I honestly don’t think there’s a time when they aren’t.” A muffled roar of laughter came from the wall and she gestured to it. “That guy in particular. I wish I could get as excited about anything as he seems to get about everything.”

“You were pretty excited about the neural bridge earlier,” he said, sitting on the opposite end of the couch. His closeness was distracting and Emily attempted to focus on her work instead of the blueness of his eyes.

“Of course I was,” she said. “Being the one to create a new treatment for such a devastating disease is exciting; it could impact so many people.” She debated telling him about Melissa but decided not to. The last thing she wanted was for him to question her reasons for creating the neural bridge, especially since he seemed to have single-handedly found the funding for her lab. He had apologized for yelling at her but she didn’t want to push her luck.

“Yes,” Hunter said, looking away from her. “I’m one of them.” Emily frowned slightly. She was on the verge of asking which of his parents had Alzheimer’s when he turned his eyes back to her. “I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

“You are?” Emily couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Hunter nodded. “How bad is it?”

“I’m starting to forget things that have happened in the past. Sometimes I can’t remember peoples’ names when I’ve just been introduced to them, and depending on the day I have trouble planning out things at work.” He took a drink of his cocoa. “It gets worse as the day goes on. I make a lot of lists in the morning.”

“Are you on medication?”

“Yes, but as I’m sure you know it doesn’t stop the progression of the disease, only slows it down.” Hunter sighed. “The medication gets better every generation but I’ve exhausted all the options. It’s getting to the point where I don’t know how much longer I can work. That’s why your neural bridge therapy is so important.”

“Dr. Chambers,” she said, trying to be as kind as possible. She hated letting people down. “I’m years away from clinical trials. I’d be happy to pull strings to get you into one but by that time the majority of the damage may be irreversible.” Hunter looked as if she’d punched him. “I’m so sorry. I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything.” To keep from seeing the look on his face, she picked up the cat bowl and filled it with food. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to feed my cat. You can see her if you want.” Hunter was silent and she went up the stairs to her bedroom with him on her heels.

Her closet door was partially open and she pulled it open all the way to reveal a cat laying on its side with five tiny kittens nuzzling into her belly. Emily squatted down to put the bowl near another that had water in it. Hunter finally smiled.

“I found her a couple of weeks ago and brought her home. She’s really skittish, though, so she’s spent most of her time hiding. I wasn’t expecting to open my closet a couple of days ago and find this.” She put her hands on her hips. “They’re cute, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Hunter said. “Of course they’re cute. They’re…” His words trailed away and Emily looked over to see him frowning, as if he was trying to figure something out. Emily’s body went cold. She knew without asking that he was trying to remember the word. “They’re…”

“Kittens?” Emily supplied the word gently and wasn’t surprised to see Hunter’s face flush.

“I don’t need your help,” he said harshly, and Emily suddenly felt guilty. “I have to go,” he said, turning around and walking quickly down the hall. Emily stood up and hurried after him, taking the stairs two at a time but she’d barely reached the bottom floor when her front door closed. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the floor, disheartened. She waited until his car drove away, then sighed and locked the door.

Emily went back to the kitchen and picked up his mug, then poured out the last of his cocoa. She couldn’t believe that her boss, the man who had made Apogee Labs into one of the top pharmaceutical companies, couldn’t remember the word for kitten. There had to be something she could do for him, she just had to figure out what that was.

 

The Absence of Intellect – Two

Two

“Thank you,” Emily said to the young man who had set up her new computer. He nodded and left her alone in her newly outfitted lab. It was hard to believe that in just over three weeks she had everything she needed to start work on the neural bridge. She hadn’t asked for the computer but it had come anyway and she wasn’t about to complain. She’d been dreaming of this moment for years and it was finally happening.

Before she’d come to work at Apogee Labs, she had been a neurologist, and the idea had come to her then. She’d been working on the theory in her spare time, and on the biochemistry end whenever she could. It had been moving at a snail’s pace but now that she had the equipment and the director’s blessing, she could really do it. Not only that, but it would make development of the new cholinesterase inhibitor go ten times faster.

She was just sitting down to sign into the intranet when her cell phone rang and she glanced over at it. Her stomach turned. There was no name, but she’d seen enough numbers from the hospital to know one on sight. Afraid to pick it up, but even more afraid not to, Emily grabbed her phone and hit the talk button.

“This is Emily Ashton.”

“Good afternoon Dr. Ashton, this is Amie Declan from the billing department at St. Cecilia’s. I’m calling because our most recent invoice for Mrs. Amell’s continuing care was returned to us and we need payment for last month’s charges.” The woman’s tone was businesslike and Emily assumed this was because she had to deal with collecting money from people all day, but she was in too good of a mood to care.

“Yes, I just moved. I thought I’d forwarded my mail but apparently I hadn’t. I can stop by the hospital later and pay. Or can I just set up online payments through my bank?” Emily held her phone between her ear and shoulder as she entered her password into the computer.

“I can set up a bank draft, yes. You’ll have to come by the hospital, but I leave today at three o’clock. I’ll be back tomorrow at nine, though.” She could hear the woman typing on the other end of the line and sat back in her chair.

“No, no, I can come today. I’d rather get things taken care of so there’s no lapse in Melissa’s care.” Emily looked at her smart watch and saw that it was one o’clock already. She doubted anyone in the lab would care if she left early, especially if she was planning to come back. “Give me about an hour and I’ll be there.”

“Of course. And you don’t need to worry about Mrs. Amell’s care. You’ve never been late with a payment before,” Amie said. “I’ll see you in a little while.” She hung up and Emily leaned back in her chair with a sigh. She’d been so preoccupied with the move to her new place that she hadn’t even noticed that the bill hadn’t arrived.

I have to be more careful, she thought. I can’t let anything happen to Melissa.

“Dr. Ashton?” The voice from behind her made Emily jump, and she sat up so fast that she nearly slid off her chair. She scrambled to her feet and turned to see Hunter standing just behind her.

“Dr. Chambers,” she said, exhaling with relief. “You have to stop sneaking up on me.”

“Sorry. I just came down to see if you got everything you needed.” He looked around the room at the brand new machines, some of which had only just come out of their boxes. “I took the liberty of ordering you the new computer. A project like this requires much more computing power than the ones we have now.”

“The ones we have now are pretty great,” Emily said with a smile. “This one is on another level, though. I really appreciate it.”

“Good, I’m glad. You can get started as soon as possible, then.” He picked up a ball of clear tape and held it up, and Emily coughed into her hand.

“I have a bad habit of fidgeting when I watch people setting things up,” she said. “The IT guy was having problems and I started rolling tape around in my hands to keep my mouth shut. It’s hard for me not to just lean over and telling him to just let me do it.” She held out a hand to take the ball but Hunter tossed it into the trash instead.

“I can’t blame you, I feel the same way when I watch someone fumbling around.” He went to one of the machines and studied it. Emily watched him, trying not to be obvious. She had a crush on Hunter that had started when she finally got the opportunity to meet him, and she’d never thought she’d be so close to him. She joined him at the table that held all her equipment, fully aware that she was close enough to reach over and touch his hand. She’d never dare, of course, but it could be done if she wanted to. Instead she smiled up at Hunter.

“Isn’t it great? I had no idea they were making them so small now. The one I saw at the CDC was much bigger, but that was years ago.” She looked over at the computer, which had rebooted itself and was working on updating the program.

“You worked at the CDC?”

“No, just toured the headquarters as part of a conference. Working with viruses and infectious diseases never interested me much. Pharmaceutical research is much more interesting.” She folded her arms over her chest to remove the temptation to get closer. “I guess I’d rather be the one to solve the problems, not discover them.”

“I see. We’re lucky to have you, then.” Hunter went to her computer, which was displaying a login screen.

“You want to be the first to log in? I’d consider it an honor,” Emily said. Hunter smiled and leaned over the desk. She expected to see his fingers fly over the keyboard but instead he frowned. It looked as if he was trying to remember something, and after a painful few moments he straightened.

“This is your lab,” he said. “You should do it.”

“Oh. Sure.” Emily typed in her login credentials, then looked over her shoulder at Hunter. “I can’t believe you got the funding for this so quickly. I couldn’t even get anyone to take me seriously a couple of years ago,” she said, then grinned up at him. “You really are a genius.” Emily expected Hunter to make some sort of joke, but his expression darkened instead.

“It’s none of your business where I got it,” he snapped. “Just do your job.”

“Yes, sir,” Emily said, her smile disappearing. She’d thought they were getting along well but he’d thrown that idea in the trash with the tape ball. “I’ll get started transferring my files.” Hunter didn’t reply to this, only turned and went to the door, slamming it behind him as he left. Emily winced, then stood in the middle of the room trying to figure out what she’d done. She wasn’t expecting them to be best friends, but she hadn’t expected him to be rude either.

She sighed and shook her head, then sat down in front of her computer. The molecular mapping software opened and she started to type in the specifications for the structure she wanted to simulate, then glanced over at her phone. When she saw that it was 1:30, she jumped out of her chair.

“Dammit!” She grabbed her backpack from the coat peg beside the door and slung it over her shoulder, then headed out the door. It took her a minute or so to realize that she was still wearing her lab coat and she ran back to the lab to pull it off and hang it on the peg. Then she hurried down the hallway as fast as her heels would let her. No one seemed interested in the fact that she was leaving and she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Figuring out her boss’ mood swings was not a priority at the moment, getting to the hospital was. She skipped the elevator and went for the stairs, wondering if it was worth going back to work after she took care of her business. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss her.

The Absence of Intellect – One

One

Thoughts crashed into one another inside Hunter Chambers’ head as he stared out the window of his office. It was getting harder and harder for him to focus, and it seemed like the more he tried, the more the threads retreated from him. He was the director of Apogee Labs, held a PhD. in biochemical engineering as well as one in organic chemistry, and at the moment he was having trouble remembering the difference between valence and covalence. He wasn’t even certain that one of those terms was an actual word but it didn’t make much of a difference. The meaning of them slipped through his fingers as he tried to grasp them.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Chambers,” a young man said as he walked through the door. He was wearing a dark blue suit with a skinny tie, yet somehow still seemed to look casual. Hunter, on the other hand, was wearing a black suit with a gray pinstriped shirt but his lack of a tie or the use of his top button somehow made him feel conservative next to his assistant.

“Good afternoon, Dale,” he said, suddenly annoyed with himself for being able to remember the kid’s name but knowing at the same time that he was going to have to look up the security code to his alarm system when he went home so he wouldn’t set it off. Again. “Is there a problem?”

“No, just dropping off the quarterly reports.” He handed a thick binder to Hunter, who flipped through them. He was dismayed to realize that he couldn’t simply scan them in an instant anymore, and he wondered how much longer he could keep this up. “Kimberly in payroll wanted you to stop by when you get a minute. Something about approving the latest round of raises.”

“Sure,” Hunter said, tossing the binder on his desk and hoping his frustration didn’t show through. “I’ll call her after lunch. I doubt it’s really important enough for me to go down to HR. Anything else?”

“Dr. Ashton is making friends in the pharmaceutical lab again,” Dale said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Drs. Peltier and Foreman refuse to go into the lab, and the techs are giving it a wide berth now too. Nothing for you to worry about, though. The best thing to do with that situation is just let her have her own corner of the lab.” Hunter didn’t answer and Dale shrugged. “If you need anything else, let me know. I’m going to lunch in thirty.”

“Thanks,” Hunter said absently. When Dale had departed, he jumped up from his chair. Of course, he thought. Dr. Ashton. Not wanting to give himself time to forget what he intended to talk to her about, Hunter hurried out of his office and to the elevator without a word to anyone on the way.

The pharmaceutical development lab was four levels down from his office, and he paced around the elevator as he rode down, repeating the same words over and over so he wouldn’t look like a fool in front of her when he got there. This was too important to screw up.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Chambers,” two women in white lab coats said, looking up from a tablet as he passed. Hunter raised a hand to them, afraid that if he spoke to them he’d lose what he wanted to talk to Dr. Ashton about, and they went back to their work. The people around the lab were used to him being somewhat reserved, and if anyone had noticed his slow decline they hadn’t mentioned it to him.

Unlike the majority of the doctors who were used to his occasional presence, some of the newer assistants in the pharmaceutical lab had never met him in person before and they seemed awed by him. It normally would have made him feel good about himself but today it just served to annoy him. He looked around, and when he didn’t see Dr. Ashton he motioned to one of the assistants.

“Yes, Dr. Chambers? Is there something I can do for you?” Hunter looked over the young man’s badge. Even if dementia hadn’t been creeping up on him, he wouldn’t have known his name, and it probably would have disappeared just as quickly as it did then.

“I’m looking for Dr. Ashton.”

“She’s in there,” the assistant said, pointing to a door at the far end of the room. “She sort of lives in there.”

“Thanks,” Hunter said. He went to the door and put a hand on the knob, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. Talking to her could change his life, all he had to do was explain what he needed. He pulled the door open, still holding his breath, and was immediately hit in the face by a wave of electronic music so loud that he was surprised that he hadn’t heard it when he stepped out of the elevator. He glanced back and saw one of the other doctors look up from his computer with a scowl. Now I see what Dale meant about her ‘making friends.’ Not wanting to draw more attention to himself than he had to, Hunter braved the dubstep and went into the room.

Dr. Emily Ashton was standing in front of a computer at the far end of what looked like a cobbled-together version of the main lab, her arms folded over her chest. She didn’t seem bothered in the least by the music and didn’t show any sign she had heard her boss come into the room. It annoyed him and he clapped his hands to get her attention. Emily jumped at the sharp sound and turned to see him.

“Turn that off,” he said, raising his voice so she could hear him. It made him sound like he was shouting at her and her eyes widened.

“Dr. Chambers!” Emily reached down to her smart watch and turned the dial so the music fell to an almost inaudible level. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I don’t know how you could have with that music,” he said, not intending to sound quite as brusque as it came out. Emily turned slightly pink and tapped her watch to turn it off. Hunter felt a little guilty about his tone. He wanted – no, needed – her help and he wasn’t going to get it if he kept snapping at her.

“What can I help you with?”

“How are you coming along with that…that new…” The words wouldn’t come to him and he wished he could look it up on his phone without feeling like an idiot. “…memory medication you’re working on?” He spoke the last part with what felt like resignation and was relieved to see Emily’s face light up.

“The cholinesterase inhibitor? Really well, as a matter of fact!” She motioned for him to come closer to the computer. “I’ve managed to isolate the part of the compound that results in the gastrointestinal side effects, and it seems to have improved prevention of the breakdown of acetylcholine significantly. I’ve almost figured out how to create a combination medication that adds in memantine which will result in a significant savings to suppliers.”

“I see,” Hunter said, though he had only understood about half of what she was saying. “Impressive. When do you think you’ll have something ready for clinical trials?”

“Soon, I hope,” Emily said. “Maybe six months? Now that I’ve been banished from the main lab, I can focus on my work.”

“Six months,” Hunter said, hoping he didn’t sound as dejected as he felt. Emily nodded.

“Maybe less if I can get approval to go straight to clinical trials.” She raised an eyebrow at him and he looked at her, trying to figure out why. “Approval? You know, from someone higher up?” Hunter felt like he was on the verge of a panic attack. He’d fully intended to come ask for her help but now that he was there he couldn’t even make small talk. Emily sighed and shrugged. “It was worth a try.”

“Dr. Ashton—”

“Want to see something really cool?” She grinned and tapped a few keys on the keyboard and a completely different screen came up. Just as her words hadn’t before, the images meant nothing to him, but Emily seemed to expect him to understand. He didn’t have to spend long trying to pretend he did, though, she was obviously bursting to tell someone. “I’m working on something now that could change the treatment of dementia forever.”

“Really?” She suddenly had Hunter’s full attention. “Tell me more.”

“I call it a neural bridge,” she said, clicking from one screen to another that had a 3D model of cells on it. When she clicked again, an animation started. “It acts as, well, a bridge that mimics the connections between cells that have deteriorated or been lost entirely. Theoretically, it could reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia and retain most if not all memory function indefinitely.”

“That’s amazing,” Hunter said. “Can you really do this?”

“First I need funding so I can get the equipment to create a dedicated lab. No one seems to care if I use this room, I could work through it here.” She leaned on the desk and folded her arms over her chest again. “You’re the only one I’ve told about it. I have a feeling my colleagues would have a field day if—”

“I’ll get you funding,” Hunter said, not letting her finish. Emily looked at him, surprised. “Make a list of the equipment you need and give it to me.” She opened her mouth to speak just as his phone rang, and he held up a finger. “What is it?”

“Sorry to bother you, Dr. Chambers, but we’ve got a problem,” Dale said. “The power’s out on the entire third level and the generator’s not working. Dr. Evens says we’ve got about three, maybe four hours before the frozen things start getting unfrozen.”

“Is that the technical term?” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Never mind. I’m on my way. I’ve got to go,” he said to Emily. “We’ll talk more later. Just get me that list.” She nodded, looking slightly dazed, and he left before she could say anything else.

As he went up the stairs rather than the elevator, Hunter’s mind wasn’t on the power outage. If Emily’s theory was sound, there was a chance he could not only stop his dementia from worsening, he could reverse the damage and be himself again. He realized that his hands were shaking and clenched his fists to stop it.

She’d get her equipment, even if he had to pay for it himself.