Over the following days, a new routine established itself. Every morning, I would wake up to find Dana already gone from my place. Then, I would meet Nicolas in his—or, rather, our—office and I would follow him around for the rest of the day while he worked on his experiments. A lot of his time was spent researching scientific articles and analyzing data at his computer. He avoided human contact as much as possible and tolerated my presence only because it was mandatory.
Needless to say, the days were boring. I started questioning my usefulness. I realize it’s hard to tell, but to me, Nicolas’s condition didn’t seem as bad as I had been made to believe. It was possible that his medication was doing a really good job. However, he might also have been hiding his issues from me.
Of course, I was perceptive enough to realize that he held some grudge against that Dr. Silva guy. When someone tells you that a certain person ruined their life, it should generally light up a big red flag in your mind. If I wanted to avoid difficult situations, I needed to stay away from that subject at all cost.
On the other hand, if I really wanted to understand Nicolas better, I needed to learn more about it. This would be tricky, considering he wasn’t the talkative type.
After a couple of weeks elapsed without us exchanging much more than “hello” and “goodbye,” I decided I should try accompanying him back to his place one evening. After all, Nicolas and I lived in the same area.
I mean, not really, but that’s what I told him to make it less suspicious.
He tended to stay at the lab until late in the evening, so it was already pretty dark when we left. Throughout our fifteen-minute walk, my constant failure at making conversation made me feel like a complete idiot. Despite that, I was glad to be walking side by side with him.
At some point, I noticed he was holding a little stone and playing with it distractedly. “Hey, I always see you with that pebble. Is it a stress relief thing?”
He gazed briefly at it, as if he’d just realized it was there. “It’s a reminder,” he corrected.
“A reminder for what?”
“To do things.”
He gradually stopped walking and I followed suit. We had reached his building.
For a moment, he seemed as if he was about to say something else. A conflict played itself in front of his eyes, and I couldn’t see what it was. I debated whether I should pry further into it or leave it be, until his expression became set again.
“Thanks for accompanying me,” he said without any heartfelt gratitude. For some reason, I was disappointed.
“Oh, I live over there, anyway.” I waved my hand in some generic direction, which had no relation to the actual location of my apartment.
I tried to find a remnant of the glimmer I had seen in his eyes on my first day. I was going to give up and take my leave when a detail drew my attention to the fourth floor of the building. Nicolas’s floor. “Is your window broken?”
His head snapped to the window in question. I figured that it was news to him, because as soon as he saw it, he ran to the front door. I followed after him and we hurried up the stairs.
The window of his living room had been smashed. In the middle of the place was a brick—the offending object, I surmised. The question was, who had put it there?
The soles of Nicolas’s shoes crushed the shards of glass littered across the floor. “Do you know who could have done this?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m sure there are a bunch of people who’d want to do even worse.”
The matter-of-fact tone with which he delivered this statement made me shudder. "A bunch of people”? I remembered the two students who had whispered upon seeing Nicolas at school. It sank in that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. “Shouldn’t we call the police?”
His despondency heightened my alarm. “I’ll go get a broom,” I said, heading to find a cupboard.
“Leave it. This isn’t part of your job.”
His order had the effect of a cold shower. I stopped in my tracks. “Someone smashed your window. Can’t I at least help you clean up? This isn’t just a job—”
My brain short-circuited my sentence. Actually, that’s exactly what this was: a job. “I want to help you, that’s all,” I rephrased.
“Ethan, I don’t need your help. Get out of here.”
“You don’t need my help? Why did you hire me, then?”
“Don’t be stupid. The university made it a condition for you to watch over me. You’re a formality, nothing more. I don’t actually need your help.” There was so much scorn in what he said. It made me boil inside.
“Really? You’re the one who asked for it so nicely. Why don’t you just look for another ‘formality,’ then?”
It was only my wounded pride that kept the words rolling, like momentum behind a train wreck. I regretted them as soon as they came out of my mouth. Nicolas didn’t show any surprise. He didn’t come back at me with something even more biting. In a way, his indifference was the worst possible retort.
At last, I stepped away. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He merely nodded, as if he didn’t really care. That would teach me to overstep my boundaries.
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