It was no surprise when I found myself walking through the door into the science building of C. University the following week. It was a chill morning in mid-autumn, and I was glad to get inside for some warmth.
To get to the biology department from the vast entrance hall, I took the stairs to the third floor. Once I found Nicolas’s office, I glanced timidly inside. There were three desks, each facing one wall. I found Nicolas sitting at the one on the left wall. The intensity of his charcoal gaze almost made me run away when he turned to look at me. “Hey… Nicolas.”
He returned his attention to his computer. The gall of this guy, ignoring me like that!
“Have you been here long?” I asked with feigned indifference.
I sighed and let my bag slip down my arm.
“Pick a desk,” he finally said.
The zipper of my coat gliding as I pulled it down sounded much noisier than usual in the strained silence. I dropped my bag on the desk facing the right wall. “Is there anyone else in this office?”
“Not for now. I doubt anyone is going to want to share an office with me,” Nicolas added.
“Hmm.” I almost spoke out to contradict him, but that would have been a lie, wouldn’t it?
It was still early and the corridors were silent. A solitary trail of footsteps approached and stopped abruptly by the door. I looked up and saw a tallish girl with her hair in a ponytail. Her eyes shifted from Nicolas to me, and then Nicolas again. “Nicolas?” she called at last.
He took his time glancing at her, and even then, he barely gave her any attention. “Hey, Lilya.”
“You’re back! Bright and early for a new start.”
Nicolas nodded. Lilya didn’t seem to mind his lack of interest. She directed her attention back at me. “Who are you?”
Good question. Who was I supposed to be? Was it okay for me to say that Nicolas needed constant supervision, otherwise who knew what he could do?
“That’s Ethan,” Nicolas supplied. That was the easy part, though.
“Yeah, I’m his…” I tried again.
“—he’s just here to…”
“I don’t know, I guess…”
“—check on me.”
Lilya addressed me with a perplexed nod. “Oh, yeah, I remember now. Nice to meet you. I’m the research assistant.” She turned to Nicolas. “By the way, Irina wants to see you.”
So we went to meet Irina, the supervisor of the lab. Her office was situated one floor higher, at the end of a corridor populated by other professors’ offices.
Walking side by side with Nicolas, I noticed that we were about the same height. For some reason, I’d pictured him being much taller and looming above everyone else. Even more than before, his aloofness gave him the air of a crow perched on a high branch, overseeing the whole world, registering every detail, never interacting.
My brain had fired a question and sent it through my mouth before putting it through the proper review committee. “I was told the meds you’re taking kind of… um… ah, how to say… They cause… I don’t want to offend you…”
Nicolas gazed at me from the corner of his eye and soon got tired of my mental flailing. “Tremors? Tics? Nausea? Erectile disfunction? Drowsiness?” he proposed.
“Y-yeah, I heard they slow you down. Don’t you think it’s going to be hard to get a PhD like that?”
He shrugged. “It’s hard to get a PhD anyway.”
I pondered on the logic of his statement. We crossed paths with a couple of students. They were chatting merrily until they took a look at Nicolas. Then, they stopped talking until we’d walked past each other, at which point I heard them start to whisper. I’m not someone who’s keen on arguments. However, something about the situation told me that they were saying unkind things about him. I felt compelled to react.
I must have tensed up or something, because he noticed my intentions. As I was about to call them out on it, he took my elbow and pulled me back.
I stared at his profile, but he didn’t return my gaze. The pressure he applied on my arm silently begged me to drop the issue. I looked away and he released me.
To my relief, we’d at last reached Irina’s office. We were greeted by a slender woman with long grey hair. She wore jeans and a knitted pull-over.
“Hi, Irina,” Nicolas said in his monotone voice. “This is Ethan.”
I stumbled inside and awkwardly shook hands with Irina. “Hey.”
“Nice to meet you, Ethan.” Something emanated from her overall poise that made me feel distinctly inferior. A bit like a sheep in front of a snow leopard.
Nicolas and I sat down on the chairs in front of the desk. Irina took her own seat. “I know we discussed this almost a year ago, but I’m hoping you’ll be picking up that project about the molecular circuits involved in social stress?” she inquired.
“I’ve been giving it a lot of thought while I was away. I’d like to change my subject.”
Nicolas was impassive as ever, but something passed over Irina’s face. She didn’t seem pleased. “What do you have in mind?”
“Something about that new drug that’s supposed to cure autism.”
I’d heard about this in passing at some point. The drug had only been tested in mice up until then, and Nicolas was exaggerating when he said that the drug cured autism. Nonetheless, the findings had still been nothing short of groundbreaking. It was some compound derived from oxytocin, the so-called love hormone. Pretty neat. I didn’t understand why Irina was so unenthusiastic about it.
“This is not a line of research I wish to pursue,” she said.
“Enzo Silva is getting a lot of visibility for his recent findings.”
Irina shot him a look that could have knocked down a five-time MMA champion. I had a feeling that there was a quiet argument I wasn’t privy to going on between these two.
“Isn’t Dr. Silva a researcher at the hospital research center?” I attempted.
That broke the spell; the tension lifted a little. “Yes,” Irina replied. “Have you heard of him?”
“I took his class when I studied medicine at M. University.”
Well, that was apparently the wrong answer. “Did you?” she remarked.
That question chilled my bone marrow. Even though it was directed at me, Irina resumed her visual wrestling with Nicolas, who didn’t seem bothered in the least.
Eventually, the discussion between the two resumed more amiably. There were no further mentions of testing any new drug, and that seemed to help the mood a great deal. When the meeting was over, Irina held me back to have a word with me alone.
After Nicolas had gone, she said in a grave tone, “Ethan, don’t forget that you are here to help him keep track of his responsibilities, nothing more. If anything seems strange to you, you must let me or Eileen know. It’s not your job to solve his problems. Understood?”
I gulped. There was something ominous in her tone that made it sound like a warning.
Nicolas was already back at work on his computer. Part of my job was to write and send weekly reports about him to Eileen. I was determined to be as thorough as possible, and now seemed a good time to start.
In search of inspiration, I observed him a moment. Nicolas had a long, graceful neck. The rational part of my brain notified me that this was a weird thought to have. Good thing he couldn’t read my mind. Or could he? He chose that precise moment to turn around and catch me staring at him.
His eyes grew somewhat wider. “Is there something wrong?”
I fumbled for an explanation. “I… What… Does Irina have any issues with Dr. Silva?”
His eyes seemed to glimmer an instant, as if a fire was being rekindled among the coals. “No, but I do.”
“He ruined my life.”
His utter honesty terrified and captivated me at the same time. I blinked and the glimmer was gone; it was as if I’d just imagined his burst of pure rage.
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