This story is by Rebecca Morehouse and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As the elevator climbs towards level nine, the fear rises inside of me. L1, L2, I focus on the ascending numbers, ignoring my anxious reflection gazing back from the glossy sign; Royal Perth Research Institute – the best in biomedical innovation.
L3, L4, it’s Tuesday. Fuck, Tuesdays. I loathe the day all 32 research and development staff are stuffed into the boardroom for an hour of mundane updates. Today, however, is anything but mundane.
L5, L6, my palms sweat inside my pockets as I nervously roll Dad’s cufflinks between my fingers. Mom gave him the antique, gold cufflinks when he started his residency at Brooklyn’s St. Jude’s Hospital. That was 1987, so they were vintage then, I guess.
After Dad, also known to many as Dr James Roark retired, and long after Mom died, he spent hours reading alone. Every day, I’d find him in his wingback chair, feet propped up on his plush olive-green ottoman, overlooking Borough Park. Sometimes, he read Dickens and the classics, other times he read medical journals or sci-fi techno-thrillers by Michael Crichton. That day, it was an Australian novel by Tim Winton titled, Cloudstreet.
“I brought bagels,” I called, as I entered the tiny apartment.
“Did you know that Perth in Western Australia, is the most isolated city in the world?” he asked without a beat.
“Have you been there all day?” I queried, as I set the warm bagel and black coffee from Shloimy’s Bakery on his rickety side table, collapsing under books and journals.
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” he said, ignoring my pointed question, “most beautiful beaches in the world they say.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I started back towards the door, knowing full well that if I stayed any longer I’d struggle to return to work.
“Yes,” he paused, studying me, “they have exceptional research facilities too, you know? A colleague of mine did his sabbatical there… Must have been ‘07, I think.”
“You can tell me all about it tonight, Dad. I promise.”
That was the last time we spoke. He died that afternoon, curled up in his wingback chair, feet propped up on his plush olive-green ottoman, overlooking Borough Park, with Cloudstreet in his lap. Dr James Roark was 63 years old when he passed. The cause of death was the novel virus-x, and like many, he showed no symptoms.
L6, L7, I clench Dad’s cufflinks tightly and rub my thumb across the raised Caduceus symbol engraved on each. Aside from a few photos, they were all I brought of him to Perth. The moment I stepped off the plane at Perth Airport, I knew I was going to miss being invisible on a crowded New York City sidewalk. In Perth, all I felt was space, completely visible and exposed in wide-open space.
L8, just breathe. L9, ding! The elevator doors open to what is usually an empty foyer, except on Tuesdays. Fuck, Tuesdays. I proceed down the abnormally bustling hallway to our lab with Key & Russo Health Services etched on the glass door.
Startled, I turn to see Camilla the lab manager, with two interns looking intently at their phones, by her side.
“Grabbin’ a cuppa before the meeting, you in?”
Yes, I think to myself. But the crippling fear and inability to wander from my thought tunnel quickly override any desire to join.
“Uh … no, no thanks,” I say.
Camilla nods and returns to anxious prattle with her two followers about the virus-x outbreak. Their conversation trails back towards the elevators, as if we’d never spoken.
The highly contagious and rapidly mutating virus-x was as mysterious and vague as its title. Named for its unrecognisable properties and for the general lack of symptoms with many cases ending in sudden death, it remained “x” for “unknown”. Though it hadn’t breached the city of Perth yet it had swept across the globe through most of North America, Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.
Virus-x is why today is anything but mundane at Key & Russo Health Services. It’s also the reason I uncharacteristically called Richard, the “Key part” of Key & Russo, into the lab a few days ago.
“The isolates obtained are a unique species,” I said excitedly, as I madly scrolled through the data in front of Richard who stood silently gaping at my unusual state of enthusiasm.
“Every sample from the few who show immunity to the virus have this microorganism in high abundance. Samples from those without immunity have none present.”
I stopped to study Richard. Without warning, he began to laugh. For almost a minute he cackled in his offhand Aussie fashion until tears trickled down his face.
“I’m sorry Isla, this is brilliant work. I just haven’t heard you speak this much since you’ve been here and now this.”
I exhaled with relief.
“Why haven’t we known about this before?” he asked.
“We commonly investigate bacteria in the human microbiome while the important roles other microorganisms play, such as this one, tend to be overlooked.”
“Well, we can’t have this beneficial species isolated to the great unknown any longer. You’ll present your findings on Tuesday, Dr Roark.”
So, here I am. Me, my thoughts and my crushing anxiety. I’m frozen with terror, staring into the large saltwater fish tank across from the lab when a flicker catches my eye. It’s a Yellow Tang fish darting between fake coral and seaweed. Squeezing Dad’s cufflinks, my thoughts drift from the clear tank water to Lake Minnewaska.
It was a week after Mom’s funeral and Dad had taken me camping at the Reserve. I was only twelve, but going to the lake together had already become a regular escape from our urban lifestyle. Even though I preferred the lake, it was the solid heaviness of Brooklyn that led me to appreciate the lightness of the outdoors. From the largest Brown Trout to the microscopic algae, I was infatuated with Dad’s natural world.
That day, we sat at the lake’s edge watching the sun shimmer across the surface, me sipping juice from my bright yellow thermos, and Dad nursing scotch from the bottle.
“What will you miss about her most?” I asked.
After a long pause, he answered, “I’ll miss being whole.”
He appeared to be looking past everything in his field of vision, staring at something unseen.
“It seems to me,” he continued, almost subconsciously, “There’s nothing particularly remarkable about one individual on its own. Multiple beings, organisms, cells … mutually existing together and moving as one, like a school of fish, or algae, or DNA,” he motioned to the water at our feet, “Now that is extraordinary. But, if you isolate one from the rest, not only does ‘that one’ not survive on its own but ‘the whole’ is changed forever.”
“Here she is!” My thoughts are interrupted. I turn suddenly to see Richard and the other Managing Director, Natalia Russo striding down the hallway. I swallow a mouthful of bile and nod meekly without smiling.
“We’re not used to hearing from you, Dr Roark,” Natalia smirks.
“Well, she’s ready to impress today,” Richard says encouragingly.
“Uh, yeah,” I stumble, “Yes, I’ll try … I mean, I’m ready.”
Thankfully, Richard puts an end to my incoherence, “You heading in?”
I nod and Natalia frowns at my sincere lack of social competence.
As we approach the boardroom, their attention turns to a previous conversation and I’m left to breathe. I pull out my phone to review my notes but the news app is still open, silently screaming; Death toll jumps to 1.4 million!
I quickly close the display, turning the frightening headline to black. Again, I see my anxious reflection gazing back, this time from the dark polished screen. My eyes begin to water.
Suddenly, I’m jolted upright as soft chatter and moving chairs break my panic. Soon, everyone will be seated, dissecting my every word and all I want is to be alone.
“Good morning,” Natalia addresses the group controlled and calm, “Much to cover, so I’ll get right to it…”
Dad’s voice echoes as clear as if it’s in the room with me, “… if you isolate one from the rest, not only does ‘that one’ not survive on its own but ‘the whole’ is changed forever.”
That day at the lake, Dad eventually shifted his lost expression towards me, “The parts of us that form our whole being exist within the universe in which we are parts. So, Isla you’re never alone. And everyone else, every other part, has you.”
“Isla,” Richard calls, “you have something important to share with the group?”
I release Dad’s cufflinks from my fixed-grip letting them fall to the bottom of my pocket, “Yes. Yes, I do.”