TRIGGER WARNING: DEPICTION OF ASSAULT
The sounds of children’s laughter had a discordant effect on Amelia. Objectively beautiful in its innocence and wonder, it now often conjured painful memories of Millie.
“Mommy, look what I found!”
Amelia closed her eyes as her daughter’s voice haunted her. It brought with it a clear vision of Millie standing before her, holding out a tan heart-shaped rock in her small, soft hands.
“Mommy, look what I found!”
She’d been so tickled to discover her “fossil heart” that she insisted Amelia put it in her purse to take home. There it stayed, forgotten for weeks, until Amelia—frustrated with the accumulation of junk in her purse—finally tossed it. Millie never asked about it after the day she found it at the park. Such was the fickle interest of a young child’s mind. But Amelia thought about it all the time.
“Mommy, look at the flower!”
A woman sitting next to Amelia responded, “Yes, dear, that’s lovely.”
Amelia opened her eyes and smiled. “She’s cute. How old is she?”
The woman considered Amelia for a moment, then returned the smile. “Five, but she’s tall for her age. Do you bring your kids here often? I’ve seen you here before.”
“I don’t have children,” she lied. “My husband and I tried, but it’s not in the cards for us, I guess.”
She could have told her the truth, or a version of the truth—that her own daughter died when she was about Lizzie’s age, and now she came to the park to remember. But the truth felt too personal to share. Too real.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I like to come here, though, to watch the kids play. I love the sound of their laughter.”
“Is that helpful?” The woman canted her head as she considered Amelia’s words.
“It is, actually. The world doesn’t stop just because I can’t have children. I mean, everyone experiences loss. If it’s not infertility, it’s disease, sickness, or eventually old age, but life goes on.” The woman frowned and sighed through her nose. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t upset you or hit too close to home,” Amelia added.
The woman shook her head with a begrudging smile. “Oh, no, it’s not that. My daughter just got over a nagging cold, but we’re all relatively healthy, thank goodness. It’s just it must be tiring to think about loss and death all the time. Especially at a children’s park.” She’d never know just how right she was.
“I apologize. I’m not usually this depressing to be around.”
The woman waved her off. “It’s fine. We all have our good days and bad.”
Amelia nodded her head at the little girl in the hot pink coat with glossy black pigtails. “Well, she’s seems like a sweetheart. Colds can be tough for kids her age, so I’m glad she beat it.”
“Thank you.” She looked at her watch then stood. “It’s nearing dinner time, so if you’ll excuse me, I better get my little monkey home. It was nice meeting you . . .” She paused to let Amelia fill in her name.
“And I’m Karen. Karen Walden. Well, it was nice to meet you, Amelia. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
Amelia gave her another warm smile and a short wave.
That went better than she hoped for. Karen Walden provided exactly the information Amelia needed—that Lizzie only suffered from a cold, meaning an accident was the likely cause of her death a few weeks from now. That freed Amelia to grant her another seven years of life without the potential of some painful disease complicating the gift.
Once Karen turned her back, Amelia reached into her bag for Morty. It started its routine ruckus when she arrived at the park ten minutes ago, so Amelia opened the device and let it do its thing—just to shut it up—then dropped it back into her purse, still open and active. She aimed it again at the little girl and sent her a full seven years. The anxiety she carried around since Lizzie’s name first appeared on Morty dissipated as soon as she pressed the SEND button, and a sense of reserved relief took its place. The girl would still die young. Her mother would still bury her before she finished growing, but at least they had more time, and time was everything.
“So tell me about this guy we’re going to see. What’s his deal?”
She stared across the bus aisle at Aasma, who begged Amelia to accompany her that afternoon to a presentation at City College. They met at Java Jones, grabbed their daily caffeine fix, and hopped onto the bus in a whirlwind of rush, rush, rush. Morty, buried in the bottom of her bag, buzzed at least three times on their way to the campus, including briefly when they first got on the bus, but Amelia had neither the time nor the opportunity to check it.
“His deal is that he’s the vanguard of modern research into therapeutic medicines for many disorders, including Shackle’s Disease. He’s apparently on the cusp of a major breakthrough for it. That’s why I thought you might find it interesting.”
Amelia pursed her lips. “Because I told you my father has it.”
“Well, yes,” Aasma said.
“And you remember I told you we’re not on speaking terms. I haven’t seen him in years.”
Aasma shrugged. “I remember, but it doesn’t hurt to know more about what he’s dealing with. No matter how much you hate him, surely you don’t wish him to suffer.”
“Hmm. What was it you said about that woman we saw on TV back in the coffee shop? The political pundit who’s always ranting about immigrants? You don’t actively wish anyone to die—”
“But there are some whom I wouldn’t mourn if they do. Point taken. But you’ll still come with me, right?”
“The consequence of having the social life of a hermit is that you jump at whatever opportunities come your way.” Amelia snorted as she pointed out the bus window to the historic building that served as a student activities building and conference center. “Besides, we’re already there.”
They jumped off the bus and made their way inside the Great Hall. Aasma pulled them to seats close to the front. As the lights dimmed and the event host appeared to introduce the speaker, Amelia leaned over to Aasma.
“So what’s your interest in this topic? I thought you were going into emergency medicine?”
Aasma looked askance at her before answering. “I read a paper he wrote about the need to identify and accommodate debilitating diseases in emergency medical care. It was brilliant, so I followed him on Facebook. We’ve built a bit of a rapport, and he invited me.”
“So you know him?”
“Not in person, no. But he said to come find him afterwards and say hi.”
“Is there a personal interest there?” Amelia raised her eyebrows in question.
“Ya Allah, certainly not. It’s just smart to make connections. Eventually, I’ll move on from emergency medicine, and his medical field is growing. Making connections like John Fielding is an investment for the future.”
Amelia was relieved when thunderous applause drew Aasma’s attention to the stage. Her stomach soured at the mention of Aasma’s short future, and an unpleasant grimace filled her face as she swallowed down the bile.
Giving her new friend only one year was Amelia’s biggest regret. It pained her to think about it, so she pushed it to the back of her mind whenever they spent time together. That tactic was only marginally successful. For the moment, she had another problem to keep her mind off that one. As Fielding took the stage for his thirty-minute presentation, Morty came alive in her bag.
The applause eclipsed the device’s buzzing and whirring, but she knew it’d be disruptive as soon as they quieted down. As discreetly as she could, Amelia fished Morty from her bag, aimed it at the stage, and clicked the button. Once it stopped the noise, she dropped it into her bag.
Aasma frowned, having watched the entire episode. “You still have that thing? Did you get it fixed?” she whispered.
“Kind of,” Amelia said with a weak smile. Aasma’s attention was again drawn to the stage as Fielding greeted the audience, ending any further questions.
When was she going to learn to leave Morty at home for important events? Twice she’d taken it to meet a new client, and both times took a decidedly negative turn. And today, she walked out the door without any thought to the small, black device buried in the bottom of her bag, until it reacted to someone. The wrong someone. She was damned lucky Morty hadn’t buzzed a dozen times by now, though fate might have at least extended her the courtesy of not making the one instance in which it did the featured speaker.
The presentation passed in a blur, and what seemed mere minutes later, everyone stood to applaud the closing remarks. Aasma tugged lightly on her elbow to bring her to standing, as well.
“Let’s go to the reception. I think they have wine,” she said, pointing to the rear exits. “We’ll find him out there.”
Amelia followed her to cloth-covered tables where a selection of light hors d’oeuvres and wines in clear plastic cups were laid out. She picked what she assumed was a chardonnay. Aasma considered the wine, but then wagged her finger at it. “Actually, I’m going to see if I can track down Doctor Fielding first. I’ll be right back.”
Amelia waited close to the wall and away from the crowd in an attempt to keep herself out of the line of fire of anyone who might feel chatty. She cursed under her breath when a man in a business suit sidled up next to her.
“Hello, my dear. Why are you hiding over here all by yourself?” He was tall, looming over Amelia by a good six inches.
“I’m just waiting for my friend. She went to look for Doctor Fielding. She’ll be right back.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll stay right here so she can find me.”
Amelia looked up at the man, and now recognized him to be John Fielding. She hadn’t paid much attention while he was speaking, but she glanced at him enough to know this was him.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.”
“Quite alright, Miss . . .”
“Amelia Layne.” She had this same exchange with Karen Walden two days ago, but where that one made her nervous, this one made her uncomfortable.
“Amelia. So, Amelia, did you find my little talk interesting?” Fielding stepped in closer, effectively blocking Amelia’s view of the reception area, and stared at her with an eager grin.
“I’m actually a graphic designer, so I’m afraid most of it was above my head.” That excuse made more sense than that she was distracted by the knowledge of his imminent death. “But I know someone with Shackle’s, so my friend, Aasma, thought I might find the presentation informative.”
“Understandable. I’m expected to use bigger words and technical terms at these types of events so it can be hard to parse out without a degree,” he chuckled.
Amelia wanted to correct him, but for Aasma’s sake she elected not to confront him over an assumption, no matter how condescending it might be.
“But I can certainly provide you with information that’s geared toward patients and their families.” He leaned in and inhaled heavily through his nose. His eyes flitted from her eyes to her mouth and chest. “I might even be able to provide a private consult, if you’d like. Here, take my card.”
Amelia didn’t want it, but she felt trapped. If she didn’t take it, he’d be insulted. She lifted her hand, and at the last second, he pivoted to place the card in her palm, folding his fingers around the back of her hand and caressing her skin as he pulled his own hand away.
“It has my private number on it. You can call anytime, day or night. I’m always available to chat with a beautiful young woman.” He winked at her and took a step away. His retreat was hindered by Aasma, who approached from behind him.
“I haven’t seen him yet, but I see you’ve made a friend,” she said to Amelia, before turning to acknowledge the man with her. At that point, her eyes widened and she choked on the unfortunately-timed sip of wine she’d just taken. “Dr. Fielding? Sorry, Aasma Rifaat,” she said when she recovered. She held out her hand. “We’ve chatted on Facebook.”
“Ah, of course, Aasma. The girl doing ER residency. I recognize you from your profile photo, though you are much lovelier in person.” He gripped her hand and stepped in close. “ER is an admirable choice for a young lady like yourself, what with the late hours and the stress of trauma.”
Aasma accepted the comment with a short smile and a quick word of thanks, though Amelia caught a hint of annoyance flicker across her face. “You get used to the hours,” she said.
“I imagine you must. I was just telling your friend here that I have some materials on Shackle’s that she might find helpful, but I don’t have them with me so I gave her my card. Here, you should take one too.” He handed Aasma a card with a more detached gesture. “I should mingle around a bit more, but give me a call, my dear. We can meet for lunch to discuss that research paper you’re so fond of.”
Aasma smiled as she placed the card in her purse. “Thank you, Dr. Fielding. I’d like that.”
They both watched as he strolled over to another group of attendees. Amelia noted he made a point to stand next to the only woman in that group. He touched her lower back with his hand as he greeted everyone. Her skin crawled with a vague sense of unease.
“So, what’d he say?”
Amelia turned her attention back to Aasma and swallowed the last of her wine, taking the time to compose her thoughts. “Just chatted about his research a bit. We didn’t really speak for too long before you came over.”
“Pretty intelligent guy, right?”
“He is certainly confident.”
Aasma narrowed her eyes for a moment before pointing at Amelia’s empty plastic cup. “You want to socialize a bit more, or are you ready to go, Ms. Hermit?”
The remark caught Amelia off-guard, and she laughed. “I’ll never say no to another glass of wine.”
“I think I’ll take one now, too, so I’ll fetch them. Red or white?”
As soon as Aasma left, Amelia pulled Morty from her purse and read the information on the screen:
Name: John Fielding
B: June 30, 1967
D: September 13, 2019
Doctor Fielding had nearly an entire year left, longer than Amelia herself. Would that be enough to finish his research? Likely not. She didn’t need a degree to know that medical research took years.
Based on first impressions, she was loathed to grant him more time. He came across as a pompous letch, and who needed that kind of toxic masculinity in the world for another seven years? But his work could save countless lives. Lives worthier than his. Children. Mothers. Fathers. Those who might then go on to save others in a large, positive ripple effect. Was that not at least worth considering?
Either way, she had his number and an invitation to call. She could at least try to determine if his death might come from a debilitating illness and then figure out what to do from there.
Amelia prepared this time for Morty’s chiming. As soon as John Fielding walked into the hotel bar, she activated the device to stop the noise and placed it back in her bag. She thought about not bringing it at all, but she wanted the option of giving Fielding more time on the spot, if all went well. She didn’t want to have to meet with him a second time.
She researched Fielding online, and while he had plenty of newspaper interviews, lectures on YouTube, and speaker biographies, the only takeaway she gleaned from it all was that the man was brilliant, honored, and an arrogant ass.
Fielding caught sight of her and grinned like a cat who’d just caught a mouse as he traipsed over to the table. “My dear, I’m so pleased you called. I hoped I’d hear from you again, especially since I’m flying back home tomorrow.”
“I thought about what you said, and I’d like that information about Shackle’s Disease.”
He nodded. “Of course, but I’m only just returning from dinner, and I haven’t been up to my room yet. I have all the pamphlets and brochures there. Why don’t you accompany me? It’ll only take a few minutes, you can pick out exactly what you want, and then we’ll return here for a drink or two.”
Amelia hesitated. The request made her uncomfortable, but it sounded reasonable so she agreed.
They engaged in small talk about the snow forecasted for later that night and the potential for delayed flights as they made their way to the elevators. He pressed the twelfth floor button once they boarded, taking the opportunity to brag about the luxury suite the college booked for him. As soon as the doors swooshed shut behind them, he leaned against the wall next to her and peered into her eyes.
“I should tell you there aren’t any treatments currently available for Shackle’s, but I’m looking to change that. My research focuses primarily on the neurological origins of that body of diseases.”
The elevator—already too warm—seemed to grow stuffier. Amelia removed her coat and moved to the opposite wall as she launched into her prepared questions. “You seem passionate about your research. Is there something specific that spurs your work? Do you also know someone with Shackle’s? Someone you love?”
He grinned, likely misunderstanding the point of that last question, which was both a good and bad thing as far as she was concerned. “No, nothing of a personal nature. Just an interest in the field and a naturally passionate personality.” He bit his lower lip and quirked his eyebrow at her. “And what about you, Miss Layne? Would you say you have a passionate personality?”
“I enjoy my job, I suppose.”
Amelia swallowed the nervous lump that formed in her throat. She needed more information, some assurance that he wasn’t sick or hiding a terminal diagnosis, but she didn’t know if she could endure his come-on attempts. She pivoted to another set of questions to fill the silence. “Do you mind if I ask, how long does it take for research to translate into actual, usable medicine? Do you expect treatments to be available in the coming year?”
Fielding chuckled. “Oh, no, my dear. These things take time. After the research there are FDA applications, several phases of clinical trials, and studies. It could be another decade before anything is available in U.S. markets.”
“It must be difficult waiting over ten years to see your work actually save lives. A lot could happen in that time.”
“All good things come to those who wait, right?” Fielding crossed the small space to tower over her. He braced himself against the wall above her left shoulder and leaned in. “Look, Amelia, I’m going to be direct. As a man of considerable intelligence, I’ve grown weary of romantic games—virtuosity, flattery, pursuit—it’s unnecessary and wastes precious time.”
Amelia’s heart beat in her ears in a solid, thudding alarm. She diverted her eyes from his hungry gaze and tried to slide to the right to put distance between them. His left arm flew out to block her, effectively trapping her between him and the wall of the elevator. “Look, I didn’t—”
Fielding pressed against her. The combination of his pungent aftershave, the liquor on his breath and the lustful musk from his pores sickened her. He moved his left hand down to her right arm and pinned it against the wall, causing her coat to fall to the floor. He then rubbed his body against hers as he buried his mouth into the crook of her neck and moaned.
“Stop it. Get off me!”
He responded by covering her mouth with his hand. “Hush now. I’m older and wiser, so trust me when I say we both want this. You don’t have to pretend. I can smell your desire.”
The elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open behind them. The motion distracted Fielding, so Amelia jabbed her knee upward into his crotch. He yelped and doubled over from the pain. She then pushed him off her and into the back wall of the elevator.
Amelia didn’t look back as she tore from the car. She sped down the hallway toward the red EXIT sign and burst through the doors into the stairwell. The rush to get out of the building staved off the anger and disgust that threatened to overwhelm her. She realized she left her coat on the elevator floor as soon as the cold November air hit her skin, but she wasn’t going back for it, impending snowstorm be damned.
Once she took her seat on the green line heading back to the Bronx, she dropped her head between her knees to breathe. Her entire body shook in a raw, uncontrollable reaction to what happened, but she swallowed down the sobs. She would not cry. Not on the subway. She Would. Not. Cry.
Amelia switched from the subway to the bus and walked the last three blocks through a detached sense of mechanical routine. Her body knew the steps to get home, but her mind was otherwise engaged. Blaming herself. Questioning herself. Hating herself. She was so deep into self-recrimination that she didn’t see the man sitting on the steps to her building.
“Where were you?”
Amelia stared at him, trying through her haze to connect the voice she knew and the face she once loved to the man before her. “Rufus? What are you doing here?”
“We were supposed to meet for dinner.” His words were clipped with a tightly-controlled anger. He stood and moved toward her. She cowered away, and he looked momentarily surprised as he stepped back toward the landing. “Where were you?” he asked again in a more tempered tone.
“I . . . I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“Where’s your coat? It’s freezing out.” Rufus scanned her from head to toe, taking in the black silk dress, heels, and the coiffed hair and makeup she only ever bothered with for special occasions. His nostrils flared with anger as he came to a conclusion. “Were you out with someone else? Is that why you stood me up?”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s—” Amelia chuffed in her inability to come up with a suitable explanation. Her mind was everywhere at the moment, and yet also stuck in a small elevator with the smell of cologne and whiskey and an awful man’s body pressed against her.
“I don’t care if you’re seeing someone else, Amelia. That’s your business. But at least pay me the courtesy of not double-booking your evenings.”
“I’m not! It has . . . I didn’t . . . I’m sorry. I can’t right now. I just can’t . . .” She brushed past him to retreat into the building.
“Can’t what? I’m tired of this shit, Amelia. I can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep doing this to me.” With his last few words, Rufus reached out and grabbed her right arm.
The sensation of his fingers clamped on her skin, holding her in place, hit her like a grenade. Every part of her body and mind reacted in an outward visceral explosion.
“No! Stop! Get off me!” She flailed and kicked out against him. “Stop, please, stop!”
Rufus released her arm. Amelia then collapsed onto the steps and cried. She rocked back and forth, in turns crying then coughing to breathe through her constricted airway, then wailing again to drown out the memories. All the memories. All the thoughts. All the knowing.
She cried for everything she’d experienced, from Fielding’s assault in the elevator to the moment her body plunged into the cold waters of the Hudson, an experience that still proved a vivid part of her corporeal memory, even though Cue had reset that moment in time. She barely noticed when Rufus sat next to her, but her body reacted again with a violent shake as he touched her lightly on the back.
“Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
Once her mind reconciled his gesture with his intentions, she leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her and held her as she continued to cry. She didn’t know how long they stayed on the steps, him holding her without question, her crying into his chest. She only knew they didn’t go inside until well after the snow started to fall.