Vicissitude

My current project is a revision of a manuscript I wrote a few years ago. I’ve never been satisfied with the ending so I’m giving it a good edit and tossing out the last few chapters because I know I can do better. On the editing front, my main concern is that, as an Australian writing as an American, I will eventually need a person who’s actually from there to amend my sitcom inspired perspective, but that can wait. My main goal at the moment is to ensure the person Hayley becomes is as far from the one she envisioned in this first chapter as the story will allow.

Vicissitude by Sally-Ann Hodgekiss

Chapter 1

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Who would have thought anyone would be asking that question beyond nursery school, but that’s basically what was required. More specifically: Judgment and Decision making: Why did you select this course?

I glanced at the large digital clock behind where Professor Pendle stood combing his fingers through his rebellious chin hedge. My movement drew his dark eyes, so I quickly dropped my head in an attempt to appear dutifully absorbed in the questionnaire.

What would he want me to write? What would be the perfect answer? Truth?… You can’t handle the truth!

Switching off my Jack Nicolson inner monologue I revisited the clock.

Shit! Three minutes!

The exam was over and the course feedback optional, a chance for the motivated few to be humorous or brutal. Most, however, embraced apathy, waiting, not so patiently, for the few of us who cared, to finish. Unfortunately for me, one of my myriad of psychological abnormalities meant I had to assess each task, no mater how small, in terms of how it would affect the grand scheme that was my life.

Oh for goodness sake, just write something!

Time the critical factor, I went with a watered down version of my truth: ‘I am studying psychology to gain the skills I will need when I become an agent in law enforcement. I took this particular unit because I believe that a better understanding of what motivates people to make choices will assist me in that career.’ I rounded off my spiel with the usual butt kissing praise for the professor…. ‘I learned so much and am looking forward to your class in the Fall,’ just as Pendle glanced back at the clock and began his closing words.

Whew.

Lionel leaned towards me. “So, what have you planned for the weekend?”

Pendle was watching me, again, and though Lionel was the one being disruptive, I colored with guilt. Smiling through Pendle’s glare I scrawled, carefully tearing off the note and passing it to Lionel with as much subtlety as I could manage.

I had nothing planned. My plans had fallen through, Jeremy and another ‘family emergency’ forcing him to cancel, again. The note said ‘Holiday at the beach’ because Lionel had been warming up to ask me somewhere for days. Not that spending time with Lionel would be unpleasant; far from it. Lionel was a great guy, excellent company, and not bad eye candy to boot. Aesthetically he was the yin to my yang; as dark as I was starkly pale, tall and leanly muscled while I was petite, or in most eyes ‘elven’, minus the pointy ears. Despite the physical contrasts there was an intellectual compatibility that made conversation easy. Yet in almost two years, things had never progressed beyond him being my closest friend, my only friend, and we both were more than fine with that. A summer spent keeping Lionel company would have been perfect, but I was still hopeful Jeremy would resolve whatever it was that had, unexpectedly, ‘popped up’, and we could be together.

Pendle glanced in our direction one more time before launching into the conclusion of his post exam monologue. “Take care over the summer break and I hope to see you all back safely here at Stanford for the Fall session.”

Eager to make my escape, I grabbed my survey and the exam paper and followed Lionel to the base of the warn stairs. I was sure my essay was decent enough to secure a good grade; I had remembered to include all the key points from the lectures, and knew Pendle would agree with the conclusions I had drawn.

Pendle took the paper and my survey but, before I could flee, placed his hand lightly on my arm. “Ms Tamber, I was wondering if I could have a word, you too Mr Dane.”

Prepared for the lecture on how disruptive we had been, I was surprised when, instead of launching into his reprimand, Pendle waited until the last student unenthusiastically passed him their paper and the incomplete survey and then, without comment, strode out the door.

Direction absent, we followed obediently, all the way back to his office, using the time to stew over what either of us might have done to warrant the effort; after all, it had only been a few words at the end of class.

As I lowered myself into the aged leather chair opposite Pendle, I watched nervously while Lionel removed several conference proceedings and rolled a mismatched swivel chair over beside mine. We had been here before. It was how we had met, a common interest in psychology, Pendle our freshman advisor, both now vying for a chance to land one of the coveted research assistant positions up for grabs. Had Pendle made a decision so early?

Lionel hadn’t made that leap yet, still worried about our innocently illicit conversation. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d finished speaking. Hayley wasn’t to blame. I take…”

Pendle’s brow furrowed. “What? No… I… have an opportunity I thought you might both be interested in.” He reached into his top draw and pulled out two large manila envelopes with our names printed on a label, placing them side-by-side on his already crowded desk. “A colleague asked me to select two undergraduate students to participate in a research project he is involved in. It would require you spending part of your summer break at his facility, but I assure you, the experience would be invaluable. In my opinion he’s one of the most groundbreaking researchers in our field. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to give you more notice, but he only passed these on to me yesterday.”

Part of my brain was saying ‘Brilliant!’, the other, forever cautious, hunted for the inevitable catch. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you select us?”

Pendle smiled. “Merit. Ms Tamber, some of your papers, though short on references, are extremely insightful, and yours, Mr Dane, are meticulously researched. I do hope you’re both available.”

“I’m in.” Lionel was almost off the edge of his chair, his hand poised to shoot out and snatch the envelope.

I was, by necessity, cautious.

While Pendle waited, he picked up a brown leather satchel and slid his laptop and the nearest of the numerous, seemingly random stacks of papers inside. He obviously had somewhere to be.

Once again, time, added to the contagious nature of Lionel’s grin, helped me to reach a decision. “I suppose I can rearrange things,” anything to keep me in the running for the research position. I wanted the experience, and I desperately needed the money. Things were getting tight. At this rate, I’d be paying off my student loans from the grave. How long could a person actually survive on crackers?

“Great!” Pendle said as he slid the envelopes across. “He assured me this contains all the details. I’ll be eager to hear how things went when you get back.”

Seated on the freshly mowed grass of Memorial Court, we both tore open the packets. Inside was an airline ticket to Seattle, an itinerary, a list of suggested items to pack, a four-page document with a ‘sign here’ flag on the last page, and the name of someone who would be meeting us at the airport when we landed; Anne… no last name.

Lionel flipped the page. “No mention of Pendle’s colleague’s name?”

“Pendle skirted around it too.” The conversation had felt awkward, though his discomfort at the extremely short notice could have accounted for that. Shit! “The flight is tonight!” I was all but packed for my cancelled trip with Jeremy, the fridge emptied, neighbours ready to keep an eye on thing. The logistics weren’t going to be a problem, but as the spike of adrenalin subsided, I began to question the sensibility of accepting the offer with so few details. Something felt… off.

But not to Lionel, “It’s obviously somewhere cold; jacket, hiking boots.”

Damn. I’d have to repack after all. “Not necessarily. Swimmers… What do you think? Is this legit?” I trusted Pendle. He was a well-respected faculty member and had never done anything, in my presence, to make me wary.

Lionel, ruled by heart not head, didn’t seem to care, shrugging as he flipped through the paperwork without actually scrutinizing any of it.

I read every word. “It’s a confidentiality agreement.” I had worked at an R&D company as an after hours cleaner and been asked to sign one despite never coming into contact with any of their research, my sole domain the silent, oversized foyer and a few admin offices. This was pretty standard, written in plain-speak.

Lionel’s dark eyes lit up as he reached across and pushed a paragraph in my face. “Read the bit about agreeing to assist them in their research by taking a safe, legal, natural stimulate. Free dank?”

I had to laugh. “Legal stimulant, Lye. They probably mean caffeine or guarana.” Not the sort of buzz Lionel was after. “It also says we have a right to leave at any time ‘…by signing the contract we agree to participate in good faith…’ yada yada. I had to sign one a lot more restrictive to join the gym that time I had a brain freeze. You remember?”

“How could I forget…”

I backhanded him lightly on the shoulder. “At least there’s no mention of them denying liability for our safety.”

Lionel pulled a pen out from somewhere deep in his backpack and signed. “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have any plans. Kell has that internship and is staying at her moms in Main, my roommate’s gone home and I doubt Pendle would send us somewhere he was unsure about.”

Ever cautious, I turned back to the front page. The letter and the contract were on printed letterhead, ‘The Kimlar Group’. No help there, the name and the swirling blue logo unfamiliar. I trusted Pendle, but had his colleague provide him with all the facts? Then there was Jeremy. It had been over a month since we had last seen each other.

Doubt reined. “I’m not sure. I’d like to ask Pendle a few more questions.”

Lionel was so excited, he stopped fiddling with his watch and startled me by bounced up as if he’d been sitting on a thumbtack. “Well if I’m going to make this flight, I have to head home now. I really hope you decide to come.”

Still leafing through my unsigned contract, struggling with the pros and cons, I watched Lionel until he vanished into the surprisingly empty quad. Other than Jeremy’s beach house there had been no opportunity for travel; I hadn’t been out of California in nearly a decade. This was a chance to move beyond my comfort zone, take a risk, and possibly increase my chance for the research position. Pendle had hinted at reward… yet parts of the conversation felt off. He had skirted around specifics, held things back.

Taking a look at the time, I realized I was nearly out of enough of it for there to be any decision at all. Still trying to way up the pros and cons, I wound my way back up to the faculty offices only to find Pendle’s door locked, my knock echoing, the light out.

Damn!

The department secretary, hearing my persistence, popped out of her office, told me he had left for the day and insisted she didn’t have his cell number.

She was lying about the number, but I didn’t press the issue, sure it would be against policy for her to give it out to students.

On the bus to my apartment, I continued to way up my options. This was the third time in a row Jeremy had cancelled at the last minute. Each cancellation had been accompanied by a plausible excuse and a bounty of gifts, flowers, sweets, apologetic notes. To compensate, there were the long, late night, whispered phone calls, but I was beginning to wonder if things weren’t getting a little too complicated. The more I considered his actions, the more I began to think it would serve Jeremy right if his wife made a speedy recovery and, for once, I wasn’t waiting for him to come running back.

By the time I reached my door I was so angry at how he had treated me that staying for Jeremy’s sake was no longer an issue. That only left the dubious nature of the opportunity itself. Why the cloak and dagger? I had the feeling Pendle lied about the short notice. He may have forgotten… no, looking back I definitely sensed guilt… He had known about this for more than a day. But why had he waited? Was it a matter of chance, or had he deliberately wanted to prevent us from looking too deeply? I was doing just that. I couldn’t help it. With no one’s judgment to rely on but my own, caution and consequence was hard wired. What would Jeremy say?

That had me rethinking things. Maybe it was Jeremy holding me back, reminding me of the past when what I needed was to move forward, take risks, make mistakes? He had helped me get this far, I could never forget that, but I wasn’t the same messed up young girl anymore. The therapy sessions had become rendezvous, the incident that made them necessary tucked safely beyond harm. Fears had been overcome, my focus was firmly on my future and a solid plan had been set in motion that was sure to make that happen. Our clinical relationship was no longer required and I was beginning to see that maybe the physical one was, if anything, getting in the way of me becoming the person I wanted to be. Over the past few months I’d been miserable, my motivation flagging, my studies suffering and Jeremy had been the cause.

Anger welled and I embraced it, hurriedly replacing the bikinis and lacy lingerie in my suitcase with the more practical; one piece, jeans, joggers, sweaters… Was it that cold in Seattle during summer? I didn’t think so, putting back the T-shirts and shorts. There was no time to Google the weather.

Unfortunately, the anger induced clarity waned as I pressed the suitcase closed. The situation with Jeremy was more complicated than the black and white of Franklins Rule my anger had slapped on the situation. Emotion anchored me to him despite the growing list of ‘against’ I had compiled.

I reminded myself what could happen if I factored emotion into a decision. Instinct was far more scientific; millennia of preprogramming worked behind the scenes to ensure the survival of the species. Instinct told me to trust Lionel and Pendle, but to be cautious. As, ever relentless, time reduced my options; caution took the form of mild paranoia. Just before I left I photocopied all the Kimlar Group documents, pushed them into a stamped envelope I had been saving for a bill that could wait and, wondering if I had watched way too much TV, addressed it to Jeremy and left it with the bills on the hall table.

I was sure I would be there to tear it up in person in a few weeks time, but if not, at least Jeremy would know where I had gone.

Jeremy…

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