I remember it like it was yesterday.
I stood inside the elevator that slowly ascended floor to floor, my fingers combing through my dark hair before patting down my wrinkled shirt. The elevator’s voice-activation announced each level.
“Fourth floor,” it said easing to a stop. My reflection on the doors doubled, opening to the name Pharmaceuticals Plant Discoveries (PPD) and the slogan, ‘Dedicating Our Lives to the Formula’ arched like a rainbow over the entrance to the executive suites.
My feet stuck to the floor with no courage to move. They kept me from entering the most sacred part of the facility where true plant scientists coexisted. I signaled the word move to my brain with no luck. Words like failure and disappointment held me hostage. I hoped for a gust of wind to push me out, but nothing came. I felt for the handwritten letter from Mama tucked inside my back pocket that read quite differently from the others. It wasn’t filled with the usual questions about why I had stayed away after college or why I hadn’t visited home for Christmas, but instead, it bragged about my brother Wheatly’s accomplishments. Her letters had turned into telegrams about the Kole family’s affairs as if I was stuck on a different planet or maybe inside an elevator somewhere with nothing to celebrate of my own.
Chatter from people approaching the elevator broke my daze. I held open the doors and dragged my feet forward to the shiny red floor where my reflection greeted me again. The floor reflected a tall, dark, nerdy, young man ready to ask for a long-overdue promotion—a big one that could make me co-partner of PPD or even the headmaster of my scientific organization—that would be worth celebrating. I winked at my reflection on the shiny floor and strolled through the hallway, glancing into various senior scientists’ offices, envisioning myself sitting behind their desks, and admiring my honorable discovery plaques on the wall.
I stopped and read a plaque near an open door, “The Thom-o-nous Knell Plant founded by Dr. Thomas Knell in 1992.”
Dr. Thomas sat in his office, nose in a textbook, scanning every word on the page and comparing his research to the pile of data on his desk. His eyes rose, and I leaped forward down the hallway.
I passed scientists dressed in fancy suits and ties, avoiding eye contact as I rubbed my hands against my casual button-up shirt to straighten out the wrinkles.
Trixie, the receptionist, twisted two strands of hair and worked on the computer when I approached her with my best smile.
“My name is—”
“Yes, you’re the intern.” She frowned and her face displayed unflattering lines.
“Ah? No . . . Maybe a few years ago, but I’m—”
Trixie pointed to an uncomfortable bench near Dr. Frazier’s office—the CEO of PPD—and said, “Please take a seat. Dr. Frazier will be right with you.”
I nodded and wandered towards a large cabinet in the corner that displayed framed plant fossils from various eras in history. A circular gold stamp on each frame read, “Pharmaceuticals Plant Discoveries (PPD) in association with the Scientific Allegiance Agency (SAA); a government sector formed in 1950 for extraordinary discoveries.” The fossils gave me a second dose of motivation to wait the entire afternoon on the uncomfortable bench. I reviewed my goal list on the back of Mama’s letter:
Number one; get a promotion.
Number two; brag about the promotion.
Number three; start my own scientific company and end the family’s curse.
My reputation depended on the promotion because I knew Mama and Wheatly missed me.
I rested my head against the wall and took a deep breath that soothed the nerves dancing in my whole body. I tapped my feet while I waited. Then my hands joined the rhythm, and before I knew it, I had created a musical beat. However, Trixie pouted at me, and I quickly stopped. I cracked my knuckles and yawned. I heard the birds chirping next to the open window, and I whistled. Trixie dropped the pencil and massaged her temple. I held up Mama’s letter and whispered, “I’m going to read,” calming Trixie from going over the edge.
I reread Mama’s handwritten letter. The date, September 30th, 1999, was the only thing I repeated to myself. Today’s date was December 1st, 1999, and I still hadn’t responded to her request to attend my brother’s celebration dinner. Not my first time. Once, she mailed me a letter that took me over six months to reply to because I was busy with work and college. She used to call my house phone, but I was never home, and at work, I was too busy to talk. She knew I didn’t purposely dodge her calls because I had always been the kid, locked away in the bedroom with my head lowered in a science book or tending to my plants in the garden. And I bet she didn’t have anything to say but asked questions about my life in Georgia.
The letter encouraged me to wait outside Dr. Frazier’s office for more than two hours and urged me to achieve an old family promise, returning home as a professional Plant Scientist. Trixie gave me a nasty stare as she pounded on the computer’s keyboard, hoping that the wait would scare me off.
“Dr. Frazier will be with you in a second,” she slurred and rolled her eyes, having said that twenty minutes ago and before that, an hour ago. I smirked. Nevertheless, Dr. Frazier took a phone call, and another forty minutes passed. Finally, the door swung open while I sat with my back against the wall and butt on the floor to save it from the bench. Dr. Frazier stared down at me with his small, grey, wolf-like-eyes and glossy sideburns, which made me more edgy about my request.
“Wellington, come inside.” He marched ahead of me as I brushed myself off. He sat behind his desk. The large portrait of him on the back wall stopped me. It was gorgeous, and I admired the dark vibrant colors mixed throughout the painting. I jammed my hands into my pockets, and I slowly moved farther into his newly extended office. The royal burgundy drapes decorated the window. His brand new wooden desk—grander than the last one—had stacked folders in red, blue, green, and brown on top of it.
He replaced the old grey carpet with white carpet, genuinely resembling the United States president’s Oval Office. I stood before his desk like a deer in a car’s headlights using its nose to sniff out the danger. Massive pictures of a younger Dr. Frazier accepting awards and at archaeological sites from around the world spiked my confidence. Dr. Frazier noticed my curiosity and pointed to a black-and-white photo in the far corner.
“You remember that?” he asked. He blushed with memories.
“Yes, sir. One of the proudest moments of my life.” I smiled proudly at the black-and-white photo of me, my church’s youth group, and Dr. Frazier—an archeologist at the time—in Israel cheesing for the camera.
Dr. Frazier interrupted my daydream. “It’s a shame that discovery became useless.” He adjusted himself in his seat, removed his smile, and tapped his nails on top of his desk. The old photo of us gave me my last dosage of courage, so I cleared my throat.
“Sir, I received a letter from my mother—”
“Oh, great. How is everyone?” he interrupted me. He never allowed a person to get their thoughts out before offering his own words.
“They are great, sir. I received a letter from her.” I waved it in the air. “She’s having a celebration dinner for my brother and—”
“Go! You deserve the time off.” He slammed his hand on his desk and shooed me away.
“That’s not why I am here, sir,” I declared.
“Okay?” He leaned back, halfway intrigued, in his oversized chair
“I promised my family when I left for college that I would return home as a scientist, and—”
“You are. Everyone working here is considered a scientist.”
“Not on the second floor, Dr. Frazier,” I explained.
His eyebrow rose instantly, wrinkling his forehead. Pharmaceuticals Plant Discoveries was a three-story building, and the first two floors were administrative support.
“What I am trying to say is, I don’t feel like a scientist. I’ve been sitting behind a desk for six years, and that’s considered entry-level work compared to what I could be doing in the field.”
Dr. Frazier froze for a moment, stood up, closed his grey blazer with the middle button, and slowly walked to the window. There wasn’t anything outside, but a street and a field of grass, however, he endlessly stared as if it was the unending ocean.
“Wellington,” he said while facing the window and fidgeting with his blazer.
“Sir? I can’t help, but to think that you do not want to promote me? You know I am the smartest person in this company.” I paused and realized that I might have been too conceited, so I reassured him, “Next to you of course, and you even said that I have a hot pot of brains.” I glanced back at the black-and-white picture of us. “Right there, you said that to me, there.” I pointed.
Quickly, he resented the picture and then turned to me with a frosty look. “Wellington, I told you that ten years ago,” he struggled to find his next words. “You were smarter than the kids in your age group back then. Now, you’re average, and I have to promote the best in the company.”
My heart leaped forward, and my desires of working for PPD faded.
“Mr. Alex Frazier,” I commanded, and his eyebrow rose again. He knew I hadn’t called him by that name in over seven years. “You said if I attended your college, you promised that I could work as a staff scientist on my discovery.”
“And that discovery became useless . . . like I said in the beginning—”
“Granted. The school stopped investing in the experiments. However, you told me that you would start a company and get funding from the Scientific Allegiance Agency to invest in the soil experiment.” I spread my arms. “And that I would be a partner and get admitted into the SAA’s network, only if I worked my way up from office clerk. Sir, my discovery helped you build this company, and I still haven’t got promoted.”
“I’ve offered you an office coordinator position.”
“Sir, I don't want to be a professional assistant. I want to be a professional scientist with his own office, with a title: doctor or headmaster before his name, and conducting scientific experiments like you said I would. That’s what you promised me, and that is what I promised my mother and brother that I will be before I return home.”
“You’ve been working on a lot of projects—” His anxiety danced around the request as his face turned bright red.
“If I don’t get a promotion, then I will have to find a company that appreciates my—”
Filled with rage, Dr. Frazier emerged forward and shouted, “Wellington, the board wanted me to fire you a long time ago!” He pounded his fist on the desk. His voice thundered, and I knew for sure that everyone outside of the door heard us arguing.
I felt shocked, confused, and disappointed. I dedicated a majority of my twenties to this company and to be a scientist—eight years of college to get my bachelor, masters, and doctorate while working six years at Pharmaceuticals Plant Discoveries as an office clerk.
My heart broke into pieces, and he made sure it stayed that way.
“The Headmaster of Botany told me that your monthly research reports sound arrogant, foolish, and unrealistic.”
Rage boiled inside of me. I reflected on past disputes with scientists in the organization, but none resulted in foul play. I only knew that I tried to help them collect data and make deadlines. They asked for my help, and I dedicated my time to their projects. Tears welled my eyes while Dr. Frazier rubbed his sweaty palms together and stepped closer with an awkward grin. “But I believe in you, and I know your potential. That is why I kept you here, as an office clerk for so long until the right time came along.”
“You should have told me this,” I muttered as my chin touched my chest.
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t break your heart and ruin your dreams.” He stepped even closer to me, and I moved away to stare out the same window. This time the grass and street were not boring but gave me the strength to move my feet apart.
A double knock interrupted us, and the door slowly opened to Trixie blushing. “Your afternoon appointment has arrived.” She giggled as she covered her mouth and moved to the side.
“Thank you, Trixie.” A tall fair skinned man with sharp features walked inside and rested his heavy-duty hands-on Trixie’s shoulder—she melted away while closing the door.
“Ah, Wellington, I would like you to meet—”
“Gary Foster?” I finished his statement. Gary approached us at the window, and his brown-slicked-back-hair glimmered in the sunlight.
“So you do remember Detective Gary?”
“Wellington, it’s been a long time.” Gary hurried towards me and pulled me between his massive arms. I pulled away.
“Detective Gary kept in contact with me after the discovery for all these years. Wait a minute . . . ” Dr. Frazier rambled through the folders on his desk as I wondered what he had to talk to Gary about. “Wellington?” An airy sound came from Dr. Frazier as he held a green binder filled with paperwork. “You’re right. I haven’t been using you as a resource. That discovery in Israel is still extraordinary, and I know something good can come from it. If you can create applicable medicine from it, I bet that will show the SAA’s headmaster board that you have the potential to be a scientist.” His eyes avoided mine as he gave me the folder, and he retracted back to the window. I held the green binder with both hands to support all the documents inside. The front cover had a big question mark on it.
“I don’t understand. You already said that this discovery was useless. And why choose me, an average guy, to solve it?” I mocked him.
“Because two heads are better than one. You guys discovered it together. You guys make some use out of it.” Dr. Frazier glowed from ear to ear revealing his greed. He stormed back to his desk and sat down. “We spent thousands of dollars testing the soil, and if nothing happens soon, the Scientific Allegiance Agency will have our backside, and Pharmaceuticals Plant Discoveries will go to the biggest buyer. I made them a promise ten years ago, and I better deliver soon.”
“But he’s not a scientist.” My voice quaked, and my muscle quivered.
“Well teach him how to be.”
“But it took me six years to learn everything that I know.”
Gary rested his hand on my shoulder.
“I may not be a scientist, Wellington, but I am an excellent investigator.” He winked and tapped his silver and gold badge pinned on his jacket.
“There you have it. Detective Gary can help you research.” Dr. Frazier waved me off.