In a post-apocalyptic world, Jaiden Holliday finds himself caught in a power struggle.
He couldn’t get it out of his head. The memory of Ben’s prostrate body, the bloody foam still trickling from his mouth, replayed again and again. It was really quite a bother. Jaiden found that he wasn’t even able to enjoy television because of it. After spending about twenty minutes trying his best to concentrate on the show he had to admit to himself that it was useless. He left his spot on the sofa and exited the common room, feeling a fleeting twinge of envy for the group still watching with obviously unadulterated pleasure.
Jaiden entered the pale blue circular hallway that enveloped the common room and made his way to his quarters on the outside of the ring. Willa was already in the little space that was the sole area belonging to their family alone, reviewing something at the workstation they shared. Long auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail to keep it from falling over her shoulders as she worked. She was surprised when she saw him enter and sit down on their bed.
“Weren’t you watching TV with Jade and the usual crowd?”
“I was. She’s still there, but I was getting bored with it.”
Willa raised an eyebrow, and Jaiden knew why. Willa was the one who had little patience for TV. Jaiden never missed his show, and neither did Jade. It was part of the connection that he shared with their daughter. In typical fashion, Willa didn’t mince words.
Jaiden swung his legs around to the end of the bed so he could face Willa as he responded.
“What happened at work today. I can’t figure it out.”
Willa’s brow creased slightly. “Okay, you said that there was an accident. What happened?”
Jaiden let his mind go back to the events of the afternoon. After trying to avoid the memory, it was a relief to consciously allow himself to relive the experience. Closing his eyes for a moment, he remembered the unremarkable events leading up to tragedy. His was largely a desk job, but Jaiden had found the time to break away from his desk to get some hands-on work done on the soil remediation project. He remembered wanting to see for himself what kind of progress Ben had made and to help out where he could.
“Ben and I were in the lab at his station..I noticed he was acting a little strange, but I didn’t think much of it. Ben’s always been eccentric. I guess it comes with the territory if you’re a genius.”
Willa nodded, encouraging him to continue. Jaiden got the impression that she was anxious to get back to her work. The thought irritated him. For a second, he considered just dropping the subject and keeping it to himself. But he felt like he had to open up to somebody about it. Jaiden fidgeted with his hands as he continued.
“Now that I think back, this time was different. He was distracted, like he was having a hard time concentrating. Ben was never like that before, but I was so focused on the work that I didn’t give it a second thought.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Jaiden gave it quite a bit of thought, but he had tried to act like he wasn’t. At the time, he had suspected that Ben might be suffering the beginnings of dementia. He was at an age where it was a real possibility, and Jaiden had seen it happen before. Of course, he would have had to file a report even if he suspected such a thing. And that report would lead to bad things for Ben. If he did have dementia, and it turned out to be beyond remedy, it would lead to very bad things for Ben. Jaiden didn’t want to be a part of that if he could help it, so he bent the rules a bit. Knowing that Willa had never bent any rule in the slightest since they’d met, as far as he knew, he thought it best to keep that detail to himself.
“So I’d been out there with him about three hours, and all of a sudden he just lost his grip on reality.”
Jaiden paused, his gaze fixed on nothing in particular as he concentrated to get the details right. Willa patiently waited for him to continue, her brow slightly furrowed.
“He started talking. He wasn’t talking to me though. It looked like he was having a conversation, but nobody else was there. He’d pause and nod just like he was listening, and waiting for someone to finish what they were saying. I asked him who he was talking to, but he acted like he didn’t even know I was there. After a few minutes, he started jerking his head around, looking all around. Almost fell right off his chair. By this time it was obvious that something was really wrong, so I tried to shake him to see if he’d snap out of it. He jumped up out of his chair and yelled, ‘YOU LEAVE ME ALONE!’ and wagged his finger up and down.”
Willa crossed her arms, her expression unchanged.
“The thing is, he wasn’t talking to me. He wasn’t even looking at me; he was looking over to the side somewhere and that’s where he was pointing his finger. Then he grabbed a beaker of hydrochloric acid off the workbench next to him and he downs the whole thing just like it was a glass of water!”
Jaiden wasn’t sure what reaction he was expecting from Willa, but he did expect some kind of reaction. So far, that expectation was unfulfilled. She continued to listen calmly.
“So he started coughing and sputtering. You could tell the acid was really burning him because he was coughing up some kind of pink and red foam and he could barely breathe. Then he looked off to the side, his eyes got real big, and he took off running the other way until, Bam!” Jaiden slapped one hand against the other for dramatic effect. “He ran straight into the wall like he didn’t even see it. He knocked himself out flat with the impact, but he was still convulsing on the floor when the rest of the team ran in after hearing him yell. Somebody, I think it was Carl, called the emergency line and they took him away.”
Willa waited a few moments without speaking. When it was clear Jaiden had nothing further to add, she stated matter-of-factly, “Accidents happen. Why does it bother you?”
Jaiden’s silent reply echoed inside his mind. Because Ben was my friend. Because we worked together for over thirteen years and nobody even bothered to tell me if he was alive or dead. Of course, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite normal. For a split second he regarded Willa, wondering how two people so different had ended up sharing so much. He gave her an answer that he knew she would understand. That she would accept.
“You know that Ben is irreplaceable. He may be the best researcher that Mother has. I tried to help him out wherever I could, but I had a hard time following him. You also know how important the soil remediation project is. We can’t afford a major setback on this one.”
Willa let her arms drop as she leaned back in her chair. Her tone was a bit more sympathetic.. “That’s a good point. I’m a little surprised. You’re usually not one to bring stress from work home with you.”
Jaiden grinned. “I think you do that enough for both of us, don’t you?”
She gave him a slight, short-lived smile at his joke, though it was obvious that she was not amused. There wasn’t the slightest trace of humor in her answer. “I was starting to wonder if you’d have to see the psychiatrist again.”
It was an old wound that Willa had a penchant for reopening. It apparently didn’t matter how many years had passed. Jaiden chafed inside at her emphasis on the word again. Experience had taught him long ago that the wisest path was to avoid the subject altogether, or at least as much as his partner would allow. He decided to ignore her comment and bring their discussion back to the topic at hand.
“Don’t you find it the least bit worrisome, or at least strange, that Ben would suddenly lose his mind? I called what happened an accident mostly because I don’t know what else to call it. You have to admit it’s not exactly like getting your finger caught in a drawer or slipping on a wet floor.”
Willa folded her arms again. “It doesn’t worry me, and I don’t think it should worry you either. It does sound strange, but I don’t work for Medical. Who knows? Maybe Ben’s had some health problems that he never told you about.”
Jaiden shook his head. “No, I would have seen it in his file. Don’t forget that I’m his supervisor.”
“Well, maybe he had some health problems that hadn’t been detected yet. The checkups don’t catch everything. It probably wasn’t physical anyway. Who was it that said there’s a fine line between genius and insanity? Maybe Ben crossed the line. You just happened to be right beside him when he did it.”
It seemed logical, but it wasn’t good enough. What if it had something to do with the research? Their work was on the cutting edge of technology and was inherently dangerous. There was always a theoretical framework for every experiment but they could never be sure beforehand what would happen. That was the very reason that empirical data was so important. On the other hand, if it really was a health problem, was it something that he could catch and spread to the rest of the population? They had been working side by side. There was no doubt in Jaiden’s mind that he would have been exposed. If so, he could have given it to a hundred people by now. To Willa. To Jade.
He leaned back on the bed, cradling his head in his hands as he gazed up at the white, tiled ceiling. What worried him most of all was his own reaction. For all that he tried to hide it, he was still beset with grief, enough to affect his performance at work. He didn’t think that anyone else at work had noticed, yet. The last thing he wanted was to be branded with the stigma of being sent to a psychiatrist. The first visit was already on file. Another one might be enough to jeopardize his career. But the sadness, the shock, and, above all, the loss were undeniable. Somehow Jaiden knew inside that he would never see Ben again. And it hurt. He wished that he could be as detached as Willa, but it was no use. He just hoped that he could keep his feelings hidden until they were dulled and erased by time.
Willa left her still unfinished work at the desk. She rose from her chair, her tall, thin form gracefully coming to sit down by him on the bed. She ran her fingers through his dark hair. He closed his eyes, trying to enjoy the moment. Willa leaned down and gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Just let it go, Okay?”
Soon the time would come when he would wish he had.