My job was to walk the perimeter of Professor Dembowski’s property late every evening and spray down a foot-wide swath of bluish-green foam to contain It when he let It out to feed at night. As far as jobs went, this was an easy one, taking little of my time. And it paid well. A lot more than cashiering at Walmart or waiting tables.
I had no idea what “It” was and didn’t care. All that concerned me was the crisp, hundred-dollar bills the professor counted out onto my palm every Friday after I returned the emptied sprayer to the shed in back of his sprawling, log home in the country.
“Thank you, Tessa,” he invariably said in that funny accent I couldn’t quite place. “You are such a good girl.”
We engaged in a bit of small talk, then I was on my way.
Seated on his motorized scooter at the bottom of a wooden ramp leading up to the head-high back porch, he watched me walk away. I always turned and gave him a little wave when I reached the side of the house, then picked my way along an overgrown rock path that meandered through wild grasses, weeds, and trees, to my dusty, red Thunderbird parked out front.
That was the way it had always gone, and that was the way it went this evening.
After pulling off my muddy boots and wet socks and pitching them in the trunk, I slid behind the wheel and twisted the key. The engine whined but didn’t catch. I turned it off, waited a bit, tried again, got the same result. And again. “Start, you ole sumbitch…” I muttered, falling back into the hill-country dialect that was always on the tip of my tongue, stuck there like glue, just waiting for an unguarded moment to slip out.
Mama’s pride-and-joy that she had given me to make the long trip north finally caught, sputtered, then came to life with an oily roar. Guess hearing Daddy’s words coming out of my mouth scared it like they had everyone else back home. Even me. Until I had gotten bigger and tougher and could take the beatings, both verbal and physical, without making a sound.
I steered the Thunderbird around the circle drive, then along a lengthy straightaway before the concrete gave way to packed dirt. I took a sharp left, following a set of tracks plowing through knee-high grass. A few hundred yards more and the road ended at the highway. I stopped, glanced into the rearview mirror at the encroaching darkness. Nothing but trees and vines and brush. No sign at all that a million-dollar-plus house lurked behind the gnarled thicket. Why, even his mailbox was a rusty, listing thing.
And not for the first time, I wondered: why the camouflage?
But it was just a passing thought. The thousands of dollars growing in my bank account earmarked for a decent car rested in the forefront of my mind. Soon, there would be enough. And after the car, I would be able to send money home to Mama. I just had to come up with a way to keep it out of Daddy’s hands.
I flipped on the headlights, rolled through the strip of aquamarine foam, and pulled onto the highway.
Cass met me at the front door of the duplex near campus that we shared. With a luscious smile on her red lips, she pulled me inside. “I’ve been waiting for you, darling,” she said. “I’m absolutely famished…for you.”
Her long, black hair brushed my face as she leaned in close. Her lips closed over mine, her tongue probing for permission to enter. I opened my mouth. Moaned. Her hand slid between my legs.
She broke the kiss, whispered against my lips, “You need a shower.”
We took one—together.
Cass fell asleep spooned against my back, her arm curled around me, cupping one of my breasts. I was close to drifting off as well, my mind floating in that safe harbor I had found with her, bobbing gently on waves of contentment, when a loud, male voice shattered the Sunday-night quiet.
Belly knotting in fear, my eyes popped open, but I moved not a muscle. Years of trying to remain invisible kept me still and silent. Then a woman’s voice screamed out a “fuck you”, and I realized it was just Mark and Linda in the adjoining duplex going through their almost nightly ritual of fight-and-makeup sex. It wasn’t Daddy in a drunken rage bellowing at Mama before he beat the shit out of her, then turning on me and my sisters if we dared interfere.
Behind me, Cass slept on; she hadn’t heard a thing. I closed my eyes and tried to return to my safe place. But couldn’t. A man’s voice raised in anger never failed to send a rush of adrenalin coursing through my body, the fight or flight response.
I eased Cass’s arm off my ribs and slipped from between the sheets, our bed uttering only the softest of sighs. I was good at that: being in motion without disturbing even the air around me.
I moved through the bedroom and out into the hallway, my footsteps illuminated by the soft glow of the desk lamp in the living room Cass insisted be left on night and day. Unlike me, darkness had never been her friend. Snagging my old, flannel robe off the hook on the bathroom door, I belted it around my body, padded through the small living room into the even smaller kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
The island of light beckoned. I slouched down behind the desk, then picked up the topmost textbook from the precarious stack next to my open laptop. I turned to the chapter Professor Dembowski had assigned to read at the end of Friday’s lecture. Cloning Vectors. Definition: A DNA molecule used as a vehicle to artificially carry foreign genetic material into another cell where it can be replicated.
Soon I was lost in the world of genetics, genomes, chimeric DNA, and transgenic organisms. In this world order could be seen, could be made. In this world there were no drunken, screaming, hitting daddies. No chaos. Just peace. Order.
I felt the gentle touch of a hand smoothing my hair back off my cheek. A soft kiss on the freshly-exposed skin. Mama…
The smell of frying bacon, brewing coffee.
Tessa, you’ll be late for school…
The sound of my squabbling sisters that told me Daddy wasn’t home.
Still, I didn’t want to get up. I never wanted to get up. Sleep brought peace.
“Wake up, darling.”
Sighing, my eyes cracked open. A coffee mug emblazoned with Wonder Woman drifted downward and settled by my elbow. I felt stiff paper under my cheek, smelled the faint odor of ink. Once again, I had fallen asleep studying. Nothing new to me, nothing new to Cass. At least once a week she woke me here with coffee and a kiss. She asked no prying questions. And I think that’s what I liked about her most—she lived in the here and now. I didn’t have to explain myself to her; she accepted me just the way I was.
My cell phone appeared next to the steaming mug.
“You have a call,” Cass said. “Professor Dembowski.”
I came fully awake. The professor rarely called, and not at all since we had arranged the details of my job and salary.
I pushed back the fuzzy mass of blonde curls that always managed to hang in my eyes when out of its customary ponytail, took a sip—then a gulp—of black coffee. I picked up the phone. “Yes, Professor.”
“Did I wake you, Tessa?” he asked, his voice full of tenderness and concern.
“No…er…yeah, but it’s okay,” I answered. “Time for me to get ready for class anyway.”
“That is what I’m calling about—I won’t be lecturing this morning.”
Another fortifying swallow. “Oh?”
“My baby sister…” The professor’s voice sounded wet and quavery. “…she has died, and…and…” A hitching sob whispered sadly in my ear.
“I’m so sorry.”
And I was. Though I didn’t know him well, the professor had always been kind to me. He knew I had no use for men in the bedroom—little outside of it either, for that matter—but didn’t judge me. He was a man who lived inside his mind. I had gained admittance to that hallowed place when I held up my hand during the first lecture of his I attended, and after being given permission to speak, had asked if he preferred using plasmid vectors over bacteriophage vectors.
When the professor had finished speaking and everyone was filing out of the auditorium, he had called me down to the lectern. I was expecting some sort of come-on, but instead was pleasantly surprised by his questions, which had nothing whatsoever to do with my personal life. He asked about my major and what my goals in life were.
“I want to be a vector construction molecular biologist,” I answered.
Smiling, he said, “Then you have come to the right place, miss.”
Shortly thereafter, he hired me to spray down the foam.
To be continued…
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