Our prompt for the February 2018 writing contest has been:
On the brink of completing an important laboratory experiment, your character discovers that they’re being used by a secret organization…
And the winner is: Dominique Hart!
Dominique’s entry kept us hooked and made us smile at the same time. Read below and find out why!
By Dominique Hart
Ah, Brad, she sighed for the hundredth time. Even in the fluorescent lights of their shared lab, her coworker, Brad, looked majestic. A super model in his pristine lab coat. Veronica wondered if he knew just how handsome he was. Even now, he was bent over his beaker glasses, golden hair blinding her with its brilliance as he steadied each one.
She clumsily knocked into her own microscope.
The slide Veronica had been studying was askew on the lit surface. She fumbled over it with a downcast blush. Brad, however, didn’t even flinch. He was absorbed with his liquids, measuring each one, adding one drop of nutrients at a time.
“You okay over there?” He had blessed her with his husky voice.
Once, he had told her where was from, but Veronica couldn’t remember what he’d said. Those first few weeks they’d worked together were a hazy blur. She’d been in complete awe of how he spoke his words rather than the words he said themselves. In the end, the only thing she remembered was that he was from the United Kingdom, from a small town similar to hers.
“Y-yes!” she stammered. Her face grew hot.
Studying Brad was becoming a bad habit. Well… worse than it had been before. It was getting in the way of her work now. She couldn’t even think of anything else when he was around. Her hands shook whenever he came near her. Simple math became as convoluted as rocket science. And when he looked at her…
She suppressed a sigh.
The point was that it was growing into a problem, and she needed to find a way to get it under control.
Veronica took a steady, deep breath before plunging back into her slides. With a little tap to the left, the glassed specimen came back into view. It took just a hint more of adjusting the lens knob before she could see the slide clearly again. Meanwhile, she was also trying to regain some of her lost composure, aghast over how someone could disarm her with just their voice. It felt a little silly when she thought about it.
Focus, she chided herself, focus or you could lose your job.
The memory of those words stung, but they didn’t improve her predicament: in fact, they’d only made it worse. When Jeremy, the manager, had pulled her to the side, he’d made it clear that she was walking a thin line. A line thinner than his hairline. That threat had made Veronica nervous, but it also seemed to increase her clumsiness around Brad. The man was a catalyst for her inner klutz and their manager had shaken the mixture.
As if called into the room by Veronica’s thoughts, Jeremy entered with a clipboard in one hand and a stack of papers in the other.
Veronica started, knocking into her microscope again.
“Report?” he demanded, not even tearing his sleep-deprived eyes from his clipboard as he addressed them.
She could feel Brad’s eyes on her. She looked up before she could tell herself better.
His cool expression melted her heart and she could feel the excess heat burning up her cheeks. A small smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he answered for the both of them: “We’re really close now, Jeremy. I think we’ll have this virus decoded by the end of this week.”
Jeremy’s eyes got wide and his eyebrows rose, “You think it’ll be done that soon?” He then turned to Veronica for a second opinion.
Though she was still reeling from Brad’s handsome glance, she managed a curt nod.
“Damn, that’s way ahead of schedule,” Jeremy went back to his clipboard, “good job you two.” Their manager turned to leave.
That was the last time Veronica ever saw him.
The rest of the day went on like it had before. Brad continued working on measuring chemicals for each vial while she studied recent mutations under her scope. They didn’t really talk, each preferring to focus on their area of expertise in silence. If the occasion called for it, they would collaborate. Otherwise, Veronica was left to her own devices.
In her microscope, she watched one of the human white blood cells try to consume the mutated virus. It could not. Its mucus would wrap around the menacing organism but Veronica was reminded of someone trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathtub: every time the white blood cell would lunge forward to envelop it, the foreign attacker would slip away, staying ahead of the cell. It would even propel itself in a direction by using the force asserted by the white blood cell. It propagated itself along the slide in this manner, splitting and creating dozens of copies of itself as it went. By the time it had gone halfway across the slide, there were already fifty copies of the virus. Veronica had never seen anything like it before.
She made a few notes on the behavior.
At that point, her neck ached, a reminder that she had been bent over her work for a few hours straight. How long had it been? She pulled up her lab coat sleeve. Her slender watch read 4:08pm. At least 3 hours, Veronica realized as she rubbed the back of her sore neck.
Across the room, Brad was still working like a machine, unfettered by the strain of his task. Each glass beaker he worked on was an exact and measured mixture of chemicals, proteins, and organisms. One mistake would tip the balance of the entire project. It might even have unprecedented consequences.
Veronica tried not to think about that.
Instead, she cleared her throat gently.
Brad finished the beaker he was working on, then looked up at Veronica, “Did you say something?”
Her heart fluttered in her chest, “Ah, n-no, but…” Veronica took an unsteady breath, “but m-maybe we should talk about our r-r-results?”
“Alright,” he smiled. Brad began putting away his tools.
Veronica did the same.
It was a few minutes before their areas were cleaned up and the two were convening together at the table in the center of the room. The fluorescent lights overhead flickered over Veronica’s notes, her tight little words scribbled across the yellow memo pad page. Brad brought over his own notes, though he had less of them. Veronica didn’t judge since his job was more interactive than hers anyway.
But it wasn’t his notes that Veronica was noticing.
At this distance, she could smell the heady cologne he wore. It always reminded her of coffee with a hint of cinnamon. It was a pleasant sensation that lingered with her even after they left work. It would follow her to her car. It would be there on the drive. It would bob in and out of Veronica’s awareness as the rest of her night went on.
“Let’s see,” he began, oblivious to how his proximity was making her lightheaded, “I noticed an odd mutation in the Beta group, but it seems all the others were unchanged.” Brad flipped through his notes. Veronica could only see chicken scratch across the page.
When it was her turn to present, she took a few steadying breaths, “I-I also noticed a change in the Beta group. They’re c-c-completely resistant to the w-white blood cells. Seems th-they’ve even adap-p-pted to using them as a means of t-t-t-transport.”
“A means of transport?” Brad was incredulous.
Veronica flushed, “W-w-well, th-they’re moving along the slides now, using the w-w-white blood cell almost as a, uh, uh, a propagation method of s-s-some sort,” she flipped through her notes and handed them over to Brad. He took them without objection, his dark eyes flickering over the page. Veronica wondered what he was thinking as he read them.
“This is…” he was shaking his head in disbelief, “this is… something, I’ll say that,”
Brad didn’t sound pleased.
“Well,” Veronica began, “I th-thought it would be g-g-ground-breaking.”
“It is! It is. I’m just…”
Her lab partner glossed over her notes once again as they spoke. His eyebrows were furrowed. Veronica thought this would be a happy breakthrough for their research. She had thought that Brad would be as amazed as she was with this discovery. They would get giddy and talk biology together over it. Two scientists just sharing an interest. Maybe opening the door to something more. That’s what she had hoped for, anyway. This reaction was something she hadn’t expected.
He let out a sigh, “It’s just that this seems… dangerous. I mean, we’re in a high clearance area and that’s neat and all, but, I don’t know… if that virus got out, it just seems like there’d be a lot of problems that no one would even know how to handle.”
“I…” Veronica began, “I know what you muh-muh-mean.”
Brad shook his head, “I get that we’re supposed to be looking for variations in this virus, but this mutation seems to be getting out of hand. I’m not even sure why our employer wants to study this stuff,”
Not for the first time, Brad was skeptical of their boss. The man, Veronica conceded, was secretive, but she had always thought he was a recluse. Someone who didn’t like to go out and talk to people. No one seemed to know him, what his motives were, or why he’d invested a large sum of money on renovating a laboratory out in the hills. The locals had spun their wicked, spooky tales of Frankenstein monsters and weapons of mass destruction being devised, but Veronica had never given the rumors much credibility. It just seemed that their employer was interested in the sciences, that was all. He was getting older and wanted to give back to the world somehow. Researching ways to defeat viruses was a great way to give back to humanity. Veronica imagined the man had noble motives, if not a tad suspicious.
Brad, on the other hand, was the official skeptic of the lab. It was a useful trait for a scientist to have, but it put him and his job on the line just as often as Veronica’s episodes did for her. It was borderline insubordinate. She wasn’t sure how he got away with it sometimes.
Veronica sensed another one of Brad’s episodes coming on, so she tried to quell the storm before it reached the harbor, “Now, now, we’ve already d-d-discussed this, B-Brad. You know how s-s-secretive our b-boss is,”
“Yeah, that’s what worries me.”
It was quiet between them until Brad slapped down the memo pad on the table. He was brooding like a child but neither one of them had answers to the questions that had plagued them for over two years now. This not knowing was difficult. Especially for them as scientists. To make matters worse, these questions were always deflected by Jeremy. Either the man was just as clueless as they were, or he was keeping them in the dark intentionally. It was an unpleasant consideration.
Veronica sighed, taking in a lungful of Brad’s scent. The work day was winding to an end and she found herself wondering what to make for dinner when she got home.
Brad, on the other hand, stood from the table and went back to his work station. He picked up his discarded dropper to continue his duties.
Yup, she could still smell Brad as she walked into her house. It was like he was a ghost following Veronica around. She shuddered against the thought, against the cold of the evening rolling in. Thick clouds were billowing in from the hills. They’d lurked above her the whole drive home, threatening to downpour at any minute. It’d been the cold front that caught her by surprise, though. It was like an invisible fog had settled in around her. It chilled her right to the bone.
She scuttled into her home before she let any of the frigid air inside. Her cat, Crooks, was already waiting there to greet her. No doubt he was very hungry for both attention and kibble. Veronica smiled as she scooped up her cat.
The night was like any other. She cooked dinner and fed Crooks. He was gobbling up his food while she started on hers. Veronica reached for the remote and flipped on the television. The news was playing, the anchorman droning on in a dull voice about a woman who had been reunited with her long dead husband. The idea itself was entertaining, but rather hollow.
Veronica begun to wonder how a story like that could turn out in the end when there was a sudden rap at her door.
Both she and the cat jumped ten feet into the air before exchanging nervous glances.
Crooks was out of the room in a flash.
It wasn’t a friendly, “hello, neighbor!” sort of knock but one full of intent. What sort of intent, she didn’t know. The hair stood on back of her neck stood on end as she gazed towards her front door.
Another set of knocks that sounded more like pounding followed.
…Or was that her heart? Veronica couldn’t tell anymore.
She crawled to the door to peep through the spy hole. What she saw made her heart leap into her throat. Brad?
Standing outside her door was the blonde-haired man of her dreams, looking a little distraught but still as attractive as ever. Veronica swooned as she unlocked the door.
“Brad, what a, uh, u-unexpected surp-p-prise,” she looked him over as the smell of gasoline overwhelmed her, “is ev-verything okay?”
Her coworker was agitated, checking over his shoulder as he spoke in a controlled whisper, “Yeah, yeah, can I… is it alright if I come inside?”
Veronica hesitated for a moment… and she didn’t know why. Here was Brad, the man she had been oogling for the last couple years, at her doorstep, asking to come into her home. Was she dreaming? She pinched herself just to be sure.
That seemed to spur her into action: “Oh, g-g-gosh, yeah… w-where are my m-m-manners? C-come on in.”
She stepped aside to let him pass. He seemed relieved once he was inside, as though he had left many of his worries at the door. Veronica was at least happy about that. She closed and locked it, then turned to her haggard guest, “Crooks and I just f-finished eating b-b-but I can heat s-something up for you if you’d l-like.”
Brad grew pale as a sheet, “Crooks?”
Veronica quickly explained, “My c-c-cat,” she smiled, “n-n-named him that my-my-myself. Thought I was b-being clever, I g-g-guess.”
That seemed to restore some color to her scientific muse’s face.
“Yeah, thanks, food sounds great.” He ran a nervous hand through his hair.
As if on cue, the news reporter got louder, “Breaking news: disaster strikes a local research facility when it caught fire only about an hour ago. Witnesses first noticed the fire around 6:35pm after they claimed to see smoke billowing in the distance. As you can see, only a few charred remains give any indication that there ever even was a building here to begin with.”
True to the reporter’s word, the entire area of the footage they showed was shocking. Only small clusters of rubble remained of the walls of their once beautiful and modern research facility. Everything that the fire had touched was turned black. Smoke tendrils sizzled off the scorched ground as chemicals burned away.
Veronica was horrified.
“Police suspect that this was the work of an arson.”
No, she shook her head, trying to deny it to herself.
Brad’s hand was light on her arm, “Veronica…”
Electricity coursed through her. Hearing him whisper her name like that turned her into jelly. She would have fallen into his arms right then and there if she weren’t worried about his involvement in the recent newscast. Brad went on, “… your work has always inspired me.”
She could feel him pressing up against her back.
Part of her was melting while another part grew anxious.
“T-t-tell me it’s n-n-n-not t-true, Brad,” Veronica stammered as she watched the news anchor discuss the methods that the police suspected the arson had started the fire. The obvious method they harped on was gasoline.
Another whiff of the stuff came from Brad as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I’m sorry, Veronica,” she squeezed her eyes shut, wishing for the familiar smell of his cologne instead of the foreign nasty stink. Her head was shaking, no, no, no.
“Don’t you see?” he spun her around suddenly, adding in a softer tone, “I had to do it…!” Brad sighed. The action released the built-up tension stored in his shoulders. Her doubts crumbled when she heard his words, “That virus… it was getting too strong, Veronica. I think even you knew that. And, and well… I did some research on our employer and found out some things about him. Some things that he’s involved in. They’re all questionable, to say the least. Oh, Veronica, I had to do it,” he repeated.
“I…” Veronica tried to find her thoughts, “I b-b-believe you, Brad.”
The relief flashed over his face. It melted her heart.
“I’m so glad,” he shook his head, “I was worried you might hate me.”
She gasped, “Hate y-you? Oh, Brad! I c-c-could never hate y-you.”
He smiled at that.
“L-l-let me g-get some f-f-food warmed up-p for you,” Veronica felt her voice giving away the shred of uneasiness that still lingered in her mind. The feeling would not shake. Even as she portioned out some of her leftovers onto a clean plate to get microwaved, Veronica felt apprehensive. The news went on in the background, but it had been noticeably turned down by her drop-in guest. She tried punching in the correct time five times before finally getting it right. Her heart had taken up permanent residence in her throat.
Behind her, Brad was seated on the couch. She hoped that he wasn’t watching her. If he was, he didn’t seem to notice anything off about Veronica’s behavior. Likely, to him, it was normal. Just Veronica being her usual, uncoordinated self. Nothing to see here.
“Sorry, I-I-I’d let y-you eat on the t-t-table b-b-but my wo-ork…” she motioned over to the pile of papers, notes, and slide copies littered the surface. Her own personal microscope was set up. It wasn’t as fancy as the one at the lab had been, but it was hers. She’d gotten it when she got her first paycheck at the lab. A memento for getting her first real job.
The microwave trilled when it was done and she brought over his food. Silently, he ate it while they watched the news together. Veronica huddled in one corner of the couch while her guest sat on the edge of his seat. They didn’t talk much. It reminded Veronica of being at work, with both of them doing their own thing without bothering the other. Thinking about the lab now made her a little sad. She didn’t have a job now. Neither did Brad. They would have to go their separate ways to find work, she realized with horror. Her heart wrenched at the thought.
“G-guess that m-m-means Jeremy c-can’t threaten to f-f-fire us anymo-anymore,” she tried to make a joke to lighten the mood. Her voice rose in a playful way, trying to dispel the awkwardness.
Brad snickered, “Guess you’re right.”
He let the sentence hang, as if there were more he wanted to add but decided against saying.
“Anyway, I feel bad that I caused you to lose your job… at least let me help you get a new one. I know a guy who’s looking for scientists, he might really like your credentials. I can put in a good word for you and everything,” as he continued, Veronica’s doubt grew from a shadow to a looming presence. But Brad wasn’t even aware.
“Ah, ah… th-thanks…” Veronica couldn’t manage anything else.
Brad smiled, “No worries. Hey, where’s the bathroom?”
She pointed to a door just in view of the hallway.
“Thanks,” Brad set his plate aside on the fabric couch and left.
When she heard him close and lock the door, Veronica let out the breath she was holding in. Overwhelming uncertainty plagued her but she could not name the cause. She wrapped her arms around herself for a minute. As if trying to get some grip on her life. It was all falling away from her like fistfuls of sand.
She glanced at the discarded plate. Brad had almost finished everything on there, minus the olives. Those had been carefully picked out. Veronica giggled to herself as she made a mental note. She reached for the plate.
Something flashed on the couch, rolling away from her.
Veronica blinked and reached for it. What she picked up was a tiny glass vial, no bigger than her little finger. Her heart thundered in her ears. What was she looking at? The vial itself was completely empty, but Veronica knew better than to let her eyes deceive her. She rushed over to where her home microscope rested on the kitchen table.
With dread, she slipped the vial underneath the lens and began to adjust it as best as she could. Please say it’s not true, she repeated, please tell me it’s not. She couldn’t bear to think it. With a final turn of the focus knob, her heart dropped through the floor. All hope that she had for Brad the Perfect was dashed. There it was: the virus from earlier.
Veronica’s hands began to shake.
What was Brad doing? What was he thinking?
Then a more important question arose: what should she do about it? The question came at her out of nowhere, seizing her with its gravity. If she did nothing, people would die. That much she knew. On the other hand, if she acted, Brad might try to hunt her down and take the virus. As a scientist, it was her job to work towards helping people, not creating weapons that could kill them. She needed to act. She needed to make sure no one would be harmed from her discovery. Least of all Brad.
The microwave, her brain suggested. It might be crazy enough to work… if she could microwave it long enough, it could create enough heat to kill off the virus. Possibly. Veronica wasn’t sure, but she needed to do something before somebody else got their hands on it.
She rushed to the appliance, ripping the door open in a frenzy and placing the vial in the center.
Brad had just returned from the bathroom, looking frantic. When his eyes landed on the vial in the microwave, they got as huge as plates, “V-Veronica! Don’t! It’s… it’s not what you think…!”
“Then w-what is it?” she hissed.
He hadn’t expected that tone from her. It got his back up, defensive. Like an animal that had just been growled at.
“Tell me the t-truth n-now, or I’ll d-d-do it,” Veronica slammed the microwave door shut as she threatened her ex-coworker. To think that she actually fawned over this guy…
Brad lunged at her and she screamed. She punched a preset button. The microwave whirred to life as he crashed into her. He clawed past her, trying to reach the door. Veronica threw her entire weight against him, forcing them both to tumble to the wooden floor of her kitchen. There they thrashed against each other, climbing to stand up while simultaneously pushing to keep the other down. Veronica had the wind knocked out of her by a well-placed elbow to the stomach. Her world pitched into black for what felt like an hour.
Brad managed to pull himself to his feet.
He yanked the microwave door open mid-countdown and began to cough.
Veronica blinked away the dizziness in her head as she watched Brad collapse forward onto the counter, blue in the face from lack of oxygen as his hands searched to grab hold of something. Every breath was a struggling wheeze. Spittle flung from his perfect lips with each convulsion.
She turned her head and crawled away. The sight was beyond haunting. Was that the effect of the virus? Veronica shuddered as she scrambled to her feet. Crooks was standing in the corner of the room. He watched the scene unfold like a movie, eyes wide with understanding. Veronica swooped him into her arms.
Behind her, she could hear the labored breaths of Brad before he panted into silence. She didn’t know how she knew it, but she knew he had died. There was no doubt in her mind as the image of his blue face haunted her mind. She raced to her car, cat in arms, leaving behind her old life forever. Tears stung her eyes as she climbed into the driver’s seat. Crooks hopped into the back as she yanked her phone from her pocket and dialed 9-1-1.
Her heart hammered in her chest as she explained her situation.
She sat outside her house, too afraid to go inside, until the police arrived. With the threat of a virus outbreak eminent, they quarantined the area, but Veronica wondered if it wasn’t already too late. She tried to remain optimistic.
“What’s your name?” They asked her when they first arrived on the scene.
The female police officer stood close by, offering her what little comfort she could while still trying to do her job, “What can you tell us about what happened here?”
“Well,” Veronica began her horrible tale, “you know about that lab that burned down earlier today? My coworker, Brad, was the one who did it.”
“Brad?” The officer echoed.
Veronica nodded, “Yes, Brad Owens. He was my coworker at the lab.”
The woman searched Veronica’s face as she spoke, “Brad Owens owned the lab, sweetie.”
“What?” Veronica’s head spun. How was that possible? Brad had always criticized their boss. He’d been suspicious of the mysterious person since day one. How could he have been the owner all along? The pieces fell, one-by-one, into place.
She filled the officer in with the rest of the details as she embraced the one good thing that had come of this whole incident: her stammering had stopped.