Firstly of all. Hello I missed a week. Long story. Busy week. Then another busy week. And now here I am, having finally clawed my way to google docs to spew out… This. Below is actually my self-edit. Or. Self-finally-finished-draft. I kid you not I just sent my CPs this draft 10 minutes ago. Biggest apologies to them. Because wow, yikes.
I mentioned this on Twitter, but my draft ended up coming to around 2469 words (heheh nice) but then I shaved it to 2400. Not unlike me, as my last WIM story came to 1.3k I think? I’m very sorry, lol.
For now, I’ll leave you with this. Because I once again have to run. I’ll update this later, hopefully, with more thoughts. But! As I mentioned to my CPs, there was a point around the 1k mark that actually made for a decent pause, whereas the whole draft would become a part 1 and part 2 type deal. So I’ll mark that, and no pressure to suffer through the whole thing, considering the second half is pretty rushed and there’s some illogical bits that I would equate to human error of my characters but yadda yadda yadda, here you go–
There’s days when memories form like mist, even as you’re presently living them. You know this is a time that will stay with you, whether you would have it or not.
Sometimes it’s a forgotten tattoo that peeks out of your sleeve and makes you jump.
Sometimes its presence lingers, cloying, weighted–a thick salve along your skin you can’t ignore.
Altogether, regardless, it’s there.
In whatever form it chooses, outside of your control.
Fog rolled in on the first day of my new job. My car crawled through the buzzing gate of the research center, headlights switched off in the dim midmorning haze.
I’d found the listing online, a shining ad of white marble and walking lab coats tucked between forager haul clips and indie band announcements. Needless to say, it wasn’t my schtick, but it paid well. Plus, it was a botanical research center, and I liked plants well enough.
“You seem to have the desired level of knowledge for this position,” the head researcher, Dr. Kent had said over the phone. Odd phrasing, but alright, I recalled thinking. “Report on the fifth at ten o’clock for training.”
And I did. It wasn’t much change from my past reception positions–less books on the wall, no wafted scent of brewing artisanal coffees, an unfortunate lack of tattoo flash sheets littering the desk. Overall, the expanse of my work area–a carbon copy of the ad I’d seen–was remarkably unstimulating.
I let out a long sigh.
“Something on your mind?”
I turned, eying the intern also stationed at the desk with me. Shaggy dark hair, lab coat, tap tap tapping away at an email.
“Truthfully, nothing at all,” I supplied. “It’s like my brain’s been wiped clean along with the rest of this place.”
The intern huffed a laugh, short through the nose with a twitch of the shoulders.
“Thought this was a botany place, too. Where are the plants?”
The intern gave me a pitying smile. “Well, they’re all inside being peeled apart and put back together again.”
The tap tap tapping resumed, and I sat back in my office chair that suddenly felt a few shades less than comfortable.
There was a mug in front of my face, steaming into the air where it sat on the partition sill between the desk and the spotless lobby. I blinked, focusing on the chipped toadstool pattern along the bottom, the handle resembling a gnarled branch, then to its owner.
The intern, who I learned leveled up to full time lab assistant the previous week, beamed bright, tapping a knuckle on the sill. “Let’s not lose you now.”
I hung my head for a moment. “Am I that obvious, lab rat?”
The click of a tongue and a pinched brow. “You look about half dead behind that desk. Don’t let Kent catch you sleeping.”
I straightened up in my chair, peeking around for the doctor theatrically. It drew a chuckle out of the lab assistant. I called that a win.
Taking the mug in hand–it was decent-smelling, and actually hot–I smirked. “I like to think I’m actually on Dr. Kent’s good side.”
Lab Rat snorts, waving a hand and walking off. “If you say so.”
I shook my head and took a sip, wincing at the lack of sugar.
It was as I was driving home that I realized the mug was exactly something I’d buy for myself, chipped shrooms and all.
“You’re not stalking me, are you?”
Lab Rat paused chewing and squinted. “We literally eat together every day, what’s the problem?”
I sat up from where I was crouched over my untouched sandwich, coming back to myself in a way. I shook my head. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t know where that came from. I was just– Remember the mug?”
“With the toadstools.”
“Ah.” A nod. “The one you broke.”
I winced. “I am once again very sorry.”
Gentle kicks to my shin under the rickety breakroom table. “What about the mug?”
“How’d you know to give me that one?”
Long, drawn-out blinks. “‘How’?”
“Yeah,” I accused, holding up and shaking my sandwich half-threateningly. “How, ya stalker?”
Lab Rat went cross-eyed watching the sandwich, then nudged it away with a frown. “I’m observant.”
“That’s something a serial killer says.”
A snort, blocked by a hand with far too many rings. “Oh my god, you have frog pins on your bag. It’s 1+1. What is the problem?”
“Oh.” I shifted in my chair. “Oh, right.”
“Seriously, are you good?”
“Yeah, just… brain fog.”
Moments passed. A coworker stepped in, warning of a Kent rampage, to which Lab Rat groaned.
“That’s my cue. We still good for tonight? Sorry I cancelled last week, Kent was up my ass about a deadline.”
“Yep. It’s chill. What was the movie again?”
A plaintive stare from the doorway. “Please don’t look it up and spoil yourself.”
“Come on, I know it was like… Paramore-something.”
“It wasn’t, but okay.” Lab Rat steps out, only to step back in again. “About before… If you ever need to–”
“–talk about anything–I know, I know,” I interrupted, bobbing my head dramatically. I stopped, made eye contact. “Thanks, though.”
Lab Rat tapped the door frame. “Anytime.”
The soil-smudged papers littering my kitchen table were getting far less legible lately, not that I could ever really understand them to begin with. It didn’t help that a whole Lab Rat was collapsed over half of them, crumpling them beyond saving. Light snores and the ceiling fan above rustled the pages. Dinner sat cold on the kitchen island where I’d left it hours prior. Wisps of smoke trailed from the wicks of the aromatherapy candles I’d just snuffed out. The hall clock read 3 AM.
I sighed and reached down to tuck a tangle of hair away. “C’mon, babe. You’ve been at this for days. Sleep in a real bed, yeah?”
Lab Rat sat up slowly, head lolling back. “But–”
I leaned close, peering under bangs and half-hooded eyes. “Breakthroughs come to those who knock out when their girlfriends tell them to.”
The light, jerky twitches of a sleep-drunk giggle. “That’s not a thing.”
“I’m making it a thing.” I tried for a smile, but it fell too soon. I drummed a little beat on the table to wake us both up. “Come on, baby, you’re all peeled apart. Let’s put you back together again.”
[Author’s note: here’s where the 1k mark is!]
I’d heard of the term haunted for an expression on a person’s face before, but I’d never seen it.
When Lab Rat met me in the back stairwell–the place we’d been rendezvousing for our shared lunches for months now–the only word I could use for that face was haunted.
We sat and ate in silence. I waited, because it worked like that between us sometimes.
I cleared my throat. Lab Rat jumped, a container of grapes tumbling down the stairs with a rhythmic clatter. We stared after it, but when I looked back–
“Oh my god, babe, you’re crying.”
Bare, ringless fingers prodded at wet cheeks. “Am I?”
And just like that, we broke together. I’d always been a sympathetic crier.
Our lunches stopped after that. Our messages and sleepovers stopped after that. Our overall togetherness stopped after that.
I counted the days since we saw each other, but quit that quick after the mere glance at a calendar made my eyes mist and blur.
Lab Rat had a car, and it never left the parking lot. It was there when I arrived early mornings and there when I left late nights.
I did my desk work because I needed to, even though it felt useless in the grand scheme of things. All the while I waited for a chipped mug to be put in front of my nose, its contents equal parts sweet and bitter now.
Don’t you remember? a small voice in my head sneered. It’s broken now.
And you have no idea why.
“Hello sweetheart. Don’t worry about me, and don’t wait up for me,” the note left on my desk read.
“Everything’s fine. Kent has me on a project that’s more than I’m used to, but I’ll manage,” read the next line.
“Let’s get lunch one day soon, alright?” requested the next.
“Please take care,” it finished, signed with a heart.
I took the next week off with the PTO I had saved, under the guise of visiting family out west.
There was a cafe we frequented, and I set up camp–aka a busted laptop armed with bootleg anime sites and adblock–at one of the shaded tables every day. Lab Rat may be the smart one, but I could read between the lines once in a while.
Thursday came and almost went before that old Prius finally rolled up, and out came my walking labcoat.
At the side entrance closest to my table, I pounced, pulling us to the alley beside the cafe before any shocked yelp could be made.
“Oh, thank god,” Lab Rat exhaled, all but deflating in my arms. “You can read.”
I squeezed tight, giving a watery chuckle. I would’ve bantered back, but– “What the fuck is going on? Where have you been?”
Shuffling feet and stricken gaze. “It’s… It’s a lot. I don’t know how much I can tell you so you’ll be safe. And I can’t stay long, Kent–”
“Cunt, more like,” I hissed.
“Shush… but correct. He’s pretty much timing how long I can go out. He trusts me, but not enough.”
I clasped our hands together. “Tell me. Everything.”
Lab Rat’s sigh was all-encompassing. I felt it in my own lungs. “You know my cross-pollination project?”
“I was going for allergy-reduction or mental health relaxants… I got bio-weapon.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Like, straight-to-your-brain fucks you up. I’m still not sure how bad it can get. TL;DR, babydoll, Kent wants me to sell to the military. Either I do that, or he’s outing me as some kind of… spy? I don’t know. The preliminary published research–all that shit I had in your kitchen–it’s already under my name. He has to go through me. Remember that day in the stairwell?” I nodded again. “That was the day he… proposed this ultimatum. After testing on mice.”
I sputtered. “Botanical research center? Animal testing? For real?”
“I know, I–” Lab Rat’s–Ah, what irony, I thought.–watch beeped. “I don’t have time. I have to go.”
My grip tightens. “But–”
“He’s trusting me more. Be patient. I’ll be home soon.” The confidence melts to hesitation. “I… I don’t know what else to do other than play along.”
“We’ll figure it out. We will.”
A smile. Fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of my neck, tapped a rhythm against my skull.
“I hope so.”
Kent, it seemed, didn’t trust easy. Three weeks passed before Lab Rat slept at my place again. Well. Not much sleep, but that’s besides the point.
“So what do we do?” said to my bedroom ceiling in the humid haze of Sunday morning.
The shift of sheets in a shrug. “Nothing to do, I think.”
I sat up. “You want to let this happen?”
“Of course not.”
Silence thickened the air. It was visible. Dense. Choking.
Lab Rat rolled over, facing the wall practically wallpapered with little cards of KPOP idols. A shrine built up over the months we’d been together. It started as a joke.
Nothing felt funny anymore.
The first mistake was bringing the research home again.
For a smart person, Lab Rat sure had dumbass moments.
No wonder it took Kent months to trust. He never thought of having to trust me, though.
The second mistake–though I would call it a saving grace–was the development of a counteractive. An antidote.
The third mistake–I was good at following directions, better at defying them.
Flashes, then. Of Lab Rat asleep for the first time in days. Of driving to the center at dawn. Of rows of plants I’d never seen before. Of masks. Of Kent’s face twisted in wrinkled confusion. “You wanted to test it, right, sir?” Of flowers. Of smoke. “How’s my level of knowledge now?” Of burning. Burning soil. Burning labcoats. Burning roses. Peeled apart and back together. Was that it? Was that all? What else was this made of? I’d barely read, only followed. Flames lick at my boots. I’d started that, hadn’t I? Poppies? What did they do? What was the chemical makeup of chrysanthemum pollen–? My Lab Rat would know– My–
“What are you doing?!”
My head floats around on its own, and I smile through the smoke. There you are. But I frown, then. “I wanted you to sleep more…”
“What?!” Wild, watering eyes and sudden, hacking coughs. “Fuck. I never tested with people, babe, get out of there!”
There was the crackling of plaster, of marble, of everything. Of course I wouldn’t be heard.
I reach up, unhitch the clasp of the mask I’d made. Smoke–mist–fog billowed; I couldn’t tell in or out, which way any of it went. Only that my Lab Rat was barrelling towards me, and I couldn’t be happier. I reached out my arms–
And it all came crashing down.
You twitch awake, and it’s all there in a flash–everything you ever wanted to know. You reach out, on reflex, to clasp the remains of the dream. But it’s gone as soon as it was there. Popped like a bubble with the lightest touch and tension.
You stare at the blank dark in wordless frustration. Everything. All of it. Gone. Nothing. Again.
A gentle snuffle sounds beside you. Dim stripes of moonlight fall through slatted shutters and rest quietly across your bed. That’s right. She’s begun to stay more often in your little shack in the wilderness. She stays nights, but leaves early mornings for work, so it’s rare to wake up beside her.
“Wha’s wrong?” she says, groggy, fingers prodding searchingly across the bed. Her eyes are barely open. “‘vrythin’ okay?”
Moments pass, hanging still while you dig and search and try to remember it all. Try to remember her. It’s useless, as usual, no matter how many times this happens.
You sigh and let her find your hand where it’s tangled under the sheets. She squeezes with languid sleep-muddled strength, then goes lax.
“Yeah,” you say to her. “Yeah,” you say to yourself. “It’s just warm in here.”
On instinct, you tap at her palm a few times, before allowing yourself to drift away once again.
And bing bang boom, there she is.
What a monster.
Despite how this draft is turning out, I kinda love my characters (who I have names for but affectionately call CottageCore and Science/LabRat) and I’m going to definitely keep working on expanding this world. Anyway.
Hope you enjoyed!