I was pretty nervous when I returned to school the next Monday. I walked through the corridors like some spy on a mission, ready to disappear in the closest recess if someone happened to come my way. As usual, Nicolas ignored me when I crossed the threshold to our office, even as I stood there, staring at him. If any of what Aibek had said turned out to be true, would it change how I felt about him?
How did I feel about him?
My conversation with Dana replayed itself in my mind. Nicolas was not good-looking. He was beautiful. There was something in his being that was infinitely noble, as if the essence of him could never be stained, no matter what everybody said about him.
The autumnal morning cast an amber light through the window behind him. Golden particles of dust hovered in the light beams, and time seemed to be suspended among them. It felt as though my heartbeat was suspended, too. It made everything quieter, despite my fears.
“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked.
“Same as usual.”
“What does that mean?”
He grabbed his notebook from his desk and got up. The stillness broke. “Almost bearable, I guess. Let’s go to the lab.”
His shoulder brushed mine on his way out of the office. I caught his arm to hold him back. My pulse quickened. Was it out of fear, or…? “Would you tell me if you were in trouble?”
He seemed as surprised as I was by my gesture. For one brief moment, I thought he inched closer to me. Then, his face became very pale. He shrugged me off and staggered backward.
His notebook fell to the floor. I caught hold of him again just as he faltered. “Nicolas! What’s wrong?”
He clutched my shoulders for balance. I wasn’t that strong, so his weight made me stumble until my back hit the wall. I felt his heartbeat against my chest. He seemed to be struggling for breath.
I mentally went through everything Eileen had told me before I started, trying to figure out what was going on. Should I call an ambulance?
He pressed his head against my shoulder. I hesitated one moment before allowing my hand to rest on the nape of his neck. “It’s fine, I’m here,” I whispered.
I’m not sure what kind of comfort that could be since he never seemed particularly happy about my presence. It would have to do for now. Little by little, his breath slowed down, and soon, he was able to stand by himself. I was still shaken, though. “Will you be alright?”
He rubbed a hand over his face, avoiding my gaze, and wrenched himself away from me. “Yes. Let’s go.”
As if nothing had happened, he picked up his notebook and walked away. Before following him, I took out my phone to text Eileen:
I think Nicolas just had a panic attack.
Whenever I accompanied Nicolas to the lab, he would give me instructions to do simple stuff and I would then follow them in silence. It wasn’t exactly part of my job description to help him with his experiments, but it did pass the time.
While my hands were busy pipetting some substance into a well-plate, my mind was anguishing somewhere else. Nicolas was working a little farther at the bench, mixing solutions. I knew he tried hard to appear indifferent whenever someone else entered the lab, even though I saw him tense up every time.
I wondered what had caused the previous incident, if it was something I’d said or done. Maybe I shouldn’t have grabbed his arm. Eileen had warned me that this could happen, but I hadn’t been prepared to witness a panic attack firsthand.
Until now, Nicolas had appeared to me like an unfeeling, cold rock. When I held him, I realized he was the complete opposite. He was a warm human whose blood raced with emotions. I suddenly became aware of every little change in his posture, of the way he paid attention to others without looking at them. Of what went on behind his indifference.
“What are you doing?” Nicolas asked. I jumped when I heard his voice right behind me.
“I’m just adding the reaction mix to the wells,” I mumbled. We’d been working on this assay since the morning, and it was already mid-afternoon. I couldn’t wait to be done.
“Then why have you been pipetting from this vial?”
I froze. What? I checked the labels on the vials disposed in the rack. Had I been drawing liquid from the wrong one? “I… I got distracted. It was only this time…”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah… no… I mean…”
There had to be a way to make sure. Nicolas took the pipette from my hand and forced me to step away from the bench. “Leave it,” he said.
He was angry. He was really angry. I shouldn’t have been intimidated, but I was. “I’m sorry. I can help you fix it…”
He dismissed my offer. “With all the rumors going around about me,” he said, quietly seething, “I’m sure you must have heard something horrible by now.”
“What! No… I mean…”
“Aren’t you scared of me yet?”
“I’m not! My mother has—”
My heart stopped. Had I just said that? I was so nervous, I couldn’t check what came out of my mouth. Nicolas bit back his next retort and gulped as if he had just swallowed some bitter medicine. I took a step toward him. “Nicolas…”
He interrupted me, his words cutting through me like razors. “What if I told you I killed someone?”
I thought for a second that I had misheard. Was he serious, or was he testing me? “Did you…”
“It doesn’t matter. Whatever I say, no one believes me.”
We remained motionless as I waited for explanations that never came. I was getting sick of his shitty attitude. I ripped off my gloves and threw them in a bin before storming out of the lab.
Why was he putting this idea in my head that he had killed someone? Was it a confession, or just another one of his efforts to push me away? I was such an idiot, being this eager to help him when he didn’t even care.
I reached the door to our office and fumbled with my keys. Those stupid things had got slippery as hell and it seemed none of them would fit the lock. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. The ceiling must have been leaking, because there was water in my eyes. I wiped it away with the back of my hand.
Footsteps approached from the end of the corridor. I wasn’t ready to face society in my state. Society didn’t care. “Hey, is something wrong?”
“No, thanks, Lilya,” I told the doorknob.
“Did Nicolas say something hurtful?”
I turned around to face her. She seemed concerned, but not surprised. “No, it’s all fine.” My voice pretty much admitted the contrary.
An understanding smile lit her face. “It’s the old Nicolas shining through.”
“The old Nicolas?” To my dismay, I sniffled.
“He used to be a brilliant student. He had top grades and stellar scientific achievements for a grad student. But he was a little too proud. He showed nothing but contempt for everybody around him. As far as I know, he never had any friends.”
She giggled at my astonishment. “Don’t take what he says too personally. He’s not used to interacting with people.”
She went on her way. I resumed my struggle with my keys and managed to open the door. From what Lilya had said, I gathered that Nicolas had undergone a big change shortly before he left school a year ago. Had there been a triggering event? Now that I thought about it, his name sounded familiar. I had heard or read it before. If I remembered, maybe I could start connecting the dots.
I decided to call it a day and go home. I needed to work on my weekly report for Eileen. An honest one, that is.
I exited through a door that opened up onto a path behind the building. There was a big garage to the left for delivery trucks. It was open at the moment and my attention was caught by a shoe peeking out from behind the wall. I wasn’t an expert, but it looked a lot like Nicolas’s shoe. What was he doing there?
Slowly, I crept down the steps of the landing to get closer. I was about ten meters away when a big, sturdy guy with short blonde hair and a nonchalant gait came from the opposite direction. I surmised his nonchalance was feigned, because he threw me an assessing look that told me I’d better not linger.
At that point, I simply pretended I had to go somewhere else that happened to be right behind me, and I spun around like some ballet dancer who’d just seen the Rat King.
Nicolas’s voice said, “You’re late.”
“You missed me?” said the other voice.
“I’m being watched. I can’t disappear whenever I want.”
I turned around the corner and peered back at them as subtly as I could. What were they up to? From this distance, the wind carried away the sound of their conversation.
It dawned on me that Nicolas must have purposefully driven me away just to meet with that guy without my knowledge. In the confusion earlier, I hadn’t questioned his claim that I had made a mistake. My stomach churned with the suspicion that he had manipulated me.
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