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Authors: A E Rought

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BOOK: Tainted
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“Woke me?” His voice has a frazzled edge. “What time is it?”

“About 6.30…”

“That late?” he asks.

“Don’t you mean early?”

“Not if I’ve been at the lab all night.” For pulling an all-nighter, he sounds more alert than me. He exists almost completely on caffeine. I’m surprised the coffee pot in the employee lounge hasn’t died by now. “I think I’m really on to something here,” he explains. “I should have some numbers to show you soon.

“So,” he continues, “what has you calling me so early on a weekend? Aren’t you teens supposed to be sleeping until noon?”

“Some of us, maybe. We just got out of an overnight lock-in, though.”

“So, you’ve had as little sleep as me. How about bringing me some coffee and we can talk?”

What’s wrong with the phone? There’s distance, no visuals of the strained expression on Paul’s face. No struggling for something easy or nice to say and watching the other person reaching for the right words too.

Instead of avoiding it like part of me wants to, I say, “The coffeemaker in the lounge die again?”

“Second one this year,” he confirms.

“What kind of coffee do you want? I think Mugz-n-Chugz is open.”

After taking down his order for a large black coffee “and maybe some food,” my stomach reminds me how long it’s been since I’ve had anything substantial. After months of being reliant on the injections and massive charges needed to activate them, my body has fallen into a pain-in-the-ass rhythm of too awake, alive and hungry for the first couple days, then fading through the rest of the week. And this being two days after injection makes it a hungry day.

Familiar houses loom out of the dawn light, their edges fuzzed with the fresh snowfall. I turn off the main drag through town and down the side street leading past Shelley High. Hitting the corner of our school’s block, a smile grows and I don’t bother fighting it.

This is where I met Emma. This is where my new life finally made sense.

The Acura bogs down a little when I turn into the snow-choked drive of Mugz-n-Chugz. Even with the car windows closed and heater on, the coffee-shop smells of coffee and churros and bacon tease my nose.

I can’t come here without thinking of Emma. The first time I got a decent look at her, she was standing by the Walk-Up window. I will never forget the feeling in my chest, the warmth and
life
spreading beneath my ribs, like for the first time I was really alive.

Cruising around to the Drive-Up window, I idle in line behind a beat-up truck and a little foreign car. The menu board is a waste of space for me. I’m going to order the same thing I always do on the weekends: Two number three breakfast combos, and a drink. Today, I’ll make it three number three combos, and two drinks, one of each for Paul.

Before I can move forward in line, my phone rings. A hot shudder runs through me, starting from my clenching jaw and rocketing to my tightening fists. Emma’s sleeping. Paul never calls. It has to be Hailey.

One look at the display screen confirms it.

“Really surprised to see your face in a church,” I scoff when I answer. I half-thought she might catch fire stepping on holy ground.

“Well,” she says in a smooth voice, “never hurts to try something new.”

Her tone, her voice on my phone, her presence in the church irritate me. Really not good when I’m starting to feel tired. I can match her cranky. “What,” I ask, “do you want?”

“So testy.” I bite my tongue and don’t bark back that it’s her fault. Then she answers me:

“I want what I’ve always wanted, Alex. You.”

“You can’t have me. I’m at Mugz-n-Chugz, though. Want a coffee instead?” I hear people have burned themselves when they’ve spilled it…”

“Nice try. Your new girl is very pretty–”

“Leave her out of this,” I snap.

“Ooo,” she teases. “You are
very
grouchy. I think I’ll call when you’re in a better mood.”

“That’s really not necessary.” And will never happen when she calls.

“Of course it is.”

The line goes dead, leaves an angry fire burning in my gut and no way to put it out.

“Bitch!” I yell, and then stuff my phone away before I smash it on the dashboard.

Stewing, chewing on all the things I should’ve said, I ease the car forward and order three number three breakfast combos. I’m not sure how much I give the person at the Drive-Thru window, or even if my order’s right. I’m too frustrated with Hailey to focus.

The Acura throws snow when I floor it out of the driveway. Cold air pours in the still-open window, cooling my temper. The evaporating anger leaves a gnarling pit in my gut. Driving and eating isn’t safe in good conditions, it’s stupid in the winter. I do it anyway. By the time I pull into Ascension Labs parking lot, half my food is gone, and the edge’s off my hunger.

Snow breezes past my windshield while I sit and stare at the building. We kept it operational because Ascension creates and manufactures life-saving medicines and is on the front line of cancer research. Still, it exudes the same sense Hailey did earlier, like it’s not through with me. Maybe it’s the horrid events that took place there leeching through the cinderblock and wires. Maybe it’s Paul’s allusions to this lab being only a part of what Ascension’s become.

Whatever it is, I don’t like it. The brooding aura scrapes my oversensitive nerves as I step out and dash across the yards of plowed asphalt to the door.

“Hang on,” Paul’s voice comes tinny and distant through the speaker by the door. “I’ll buzz you in.”

The speaker buzzes, and the multiple security locks release. Balancing the bags on my arm, with the drink carrier wedged to my chest, I push the door the rest of the way open. Inside, the building smells like bleach and sparking wires and something alive and wrong. Chills climb the ladder of my spine, goose bumps rise on my arms.

Paul stands at the end of the hall by the main office. Other than a few pounds, and a few gray strands in his dark wavy hair, he looks like the guy in my memory. His smile’s the same as I remember, too: genuine and happy. The expression tugs at deep-seated memories of all the Ascension parties my parents threw that Paul had been invited to.

“Come into the office,” he suggests, stepping aside and letting light pour into the hallway.

Anything’s better than the main lab and the warren of halls and rooms beyond. The funk hanging here intensifies beyond the lab doors, the smell of chemicals and lab animals becoming oppressive. It’s even worse now, since I insisted on the shutdown of the fringe science research my father had championed. The sense, the stink of unfinished business, reeks in this place.

Paul’s office is a bit of normal in the creepy lab, even if it looks like a flashback to the late Seventies. Dark wood paneling, and book shelves make his office feel more like a den. There should be a TV, a fireplace, maybe some shag carpet. My grandparent’s farmhouse still has a den like that. It’s my favorite room in the entire house.

“Here,” I say and hold out the bag and the coffee, “a partial antidote to all-nighters.”

“Thanks, kid.”

Paul drops gracelessly into his battered leather chair, pushes aside file folders to make room for his breakfast. I take the chair across from him, at an angle to avoid some of the eye-to-eye awkwardness. He seems oblivious to any weirdness I feel, and inhales his breakfast.

“OK,” he says, fixing his hazel eyes on me after tossing his wrappers in the trash, “I’m sure this isn’t just a social visit. What can I help you with?”

So open, honest. Somehow, Paul reminds me of my mom. Not in looks. He has her same easy-going, no bullshit manner. With me, it highlights the difference between him and my father. Paul wants to help. My dad just wanted to manipulate and control. I open my mouth to speak and all my good intentions jam up.

He nods slightly, steeples his fingers and waits. Instead of talking, I glide my gaze over his bookshelves. Medical journals and books, geeky science trophies and a few blurry snapshots scattered throughout. Photos of his few friends, his brother, his motorcycle and snowmobile, and his wreck of a junker car from high school.

One picture always draws me in: Paul, my mom and me, weeks before her death. It’s all smiles and sunlight. Next to the posed, professional Franks family portrait on the adjoining shelf, the pictures tell a story I can’t quite grasp. I stand, walk to the bookshelf and pick up the snapshot with Paul in it.

“You and Mom looked so happy,” I mutter, more to myself than to him.

“Yes,” he draws the word out like a question.

I cast a look at the staged, perfectly posed family on the next shelf. One so full, one so empty.

“We don’t look anything close to happy.” I jab a finger at the Franks family portrait. “It’s my dad’s fault, and I want, I
need
, to help make it better.” There’s no way to make it “right” ever again. They’ve lost too much.

“What are you suggesting, exactly?”

“I don’t know. I just know I want to make them happy again.” My fingers tighten around the picture frame, my gaze freezes on my mother’s image. “I want to give them back some of what my father took.”

“There’s money.” His thin chest juts out when he clasps his hands behind his back and paces. “But that’s so…”

“Inadequate?” I suggest.

“Yes.” He pauses at my shoulder, looking down at the photo full of warmth, and comfort. “What can we do?”

I suggest the ridiculous, “Buy them a new house?”

“That,” he says, “
is
an idea…”

It’s crazy. I think it’s the right kind of crazy to help right some my father’s wrongs, though. “Do you have another idea?”

“I think yours is fine. I will approve the use of some of your inheritance to rebuild the Gentry’s home.
And
,” he thumbs through an ancient Rolodex on his desk, “we will send them on vacation during construction. Will that make you feel a little better?”

A little. It’s an expense Mr Gentry would’ve had to work years to afford. With my inheritance I could do it a dozen times over. I wish we could do this for Dad’s other victims.

“I would love that. But…” Emma’s mom – she will never go for it, never accept any help from me. I’m the monster’s son. Her daughter was hurt because of me. “Can you be the one to make the offer? They hardly tolerate me, there’s no way they would accept it coming from me.”

“Already ahead of you.” Paul flips back through the Rolodex. “Her father’s employer is DynaTrend, right? One of Ascension’s affiliates. I’ll put a call into his department head first thing Monday morning. While we’re on the subject of fixing things,” he says, that smile back and radiating from him. “I have a sheaf of promising preliminary numbers,” he lifts a fat manila folder from his desktop, “and I really think I’m on to fixing something else as well.”

The folder weighs my hand down, and when I open it the numbers make no sense despite my plans for pre-med in college. I lift a blank expression to him, and hand the folder back.

“See,” he says, and points to a string of numbers, a sequence of my daily blood tests, tracking levels of too many things for me to make sense of. “I think I can level this out, so you don’t go through such peaks and valleys.”

Level it out? No more insane highs crashing to sickening lows? I’ve gotten so accustomed to the rollercoaster, a smoother ride would be surreal. More than I thought was in the realm of possibility. And so amazing. My stolen heart beats quicker. My life could be almost normal again. Em and I could have a real future. Maybe we could even–

“Before you go getting all hopeful,” he warns and rests a hand on my shoulder. “It’s a long shot, Alex. With the lab in such a mess since the investigation, and the shareholders breathing down my neck–”

“But it
is
a shot, right?” I interrupt. Whatever else he said slid right past. Who cares about investors?

Something sad and shadowy darkens his eyes, but Paul nods. “Yes. There is a shot. And I promised to take care of you.”

Heavy words for someone who “reluctantly” agreed to be the executor of the estate, according to my father. Dad said Paul only accepted the executorship to make sure Ascension stayed in the black, and the Franks’ name was protected. At the time he told me, I think it was a contingency plan my father didn’t believe would go into action. Dad always talked like he would live forever.

He didn’t. And he left me dependent on weekly meds and massive doses of shock therapy to stay alive.

“Make it happen.” I hate how needy I sound. “Please, Paul.”

“I will do my best.”

He holds out a hand, long bare fingers, no scars. He’s spotless, but willing to help me with expiating my father’s sins. Then it dawns on me. There has to be something more at play here – some other reason Paul would do this. The happy picture passes between us as I place it back in his hand.

Paul runs a fingertip down the length of my mother’s dark blond hair where he thinks I can’t see.

His glasses do nothing to disguise his expression when he turns back to me. The softness in his eyes says too much. I think I know why he’s so invested in me. My mom.

And it only makes my heart ache worse.

Sitting in my car, waiting for the engine to warm up, I can’t help but wonder what Hailey’s up to. What was her goal? What’s her plan? A bitch like her always has one.

Looking out my windshield at Ascension, I wish Emma was here to talk to. She makes sense of the messes I don’t want to touch. I pull my cell phone out. Em said to text her when I thought of her, and tell her something true, show her something of who I was before we met. I don’t have to search through faulty memories for her number. It’s embedded in my mind, probably in the parts I got from Daniel, too.

After typing in her number, I click on the message field and type:

The truth is, sometimes I miss my mom so much it hurts.

By the look on Paul’s face moments ago, I’m not the only one.

CHAPTER THREE

High snowbanks tower to either side of Gran and Grandpa’s driveway. The house sits far back from the road, creating a feeling of isolation. Sunlight casts skeletal shadows through the naked maples lining the property. Inside, in the bright yellow kitchen, Gran will be making her traditional Sunday breakfast of pancakes. Bypassing the kitchen won’t be possible.

BOOK: Tainted
3.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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