The Collector

The old man’s room was dark. Only a single candle flickered in the corner, its glow illuminated by a hammered piece of metal and a half-moon visible through an open window. Yet Red could still see the canopy bed in the opposite corner, its thick curtains drawn partway. The old man was breathing quietly, hands folded over his chest, his beard long and combed.

Red was careful not to make a noise. She didn’t know if he was awake and did not want to scare him. She edged along the wall, towards the footstool standing next to his bed where books were stacked in an impossibly high tower.

She knelt down at the edge of the bed, resting her palms on her thighs. Through the window, she could see the moon hanging heavily in the night’s sky, an irridescent smudge just over the rooftops of the ancient city. She sighed as she recalled the narrow, jagged streets and the clop of horses hooves. She had been tempted to stop at the market to buy an orange, for she had not tasted one since her last trip, but she did not blend in with these people. Besides, she had to make haste. There was so little time left.

The old man grumbled and worked his jaw. This was going to be the hardest part — to convince him. Nervous, Red wiped her palms on her pants.

He opened his eyes. Even in the dim light, she could see that they were still clear despite his years. “I was wondering when you would come.”

“You were expecting us?” She couldn’t hide her surprise.

“Yes, I supposed I was.”

The old man struggled to sit up. Red reached towards him and adjusted his pillows so that he could rest against them. Now upright, he coughed and smoothed his beard, studying her. “You have no hair, young lady.”

She touched her scalp, aware that she looked strange to him. “No, I do not. I never did.”

“And you are wearing leggings like a man.”

Red nodded in agreement. “There is no difference between us — men and women.”

The old man chuckled. “Francesca would agree.” He closed his eyes and sighed. A draft from the window gathered the curtains. They shivered.

Red took his hand. It was icy cold.

“I long believed there was such a thing as traveling through time,” the old man said, “but evidence of such a thing was hard to obtain. And the church, well … the church would not allow such blasphemy. It would mean that man could be God.”

“So you are ready then? To come back with me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Ah. Here we go. Let the convincing begin. She squeezed his hand gently, but her words were firm. “We need you.”

The old man sighed. “So you think.” He looked away. “Tell me about the future.”

They always wanted to know what it was like. “The future is not what you expect. It’s dark and cold. The sun is dying. We have to leave Earth.”

“Where shall you go?”

“Into space and beyond. We need people like you — the brilliant ones to help save humanity. This is why we have come to collect you.”

“And what can an old man like myself possibly contribute in a future world? I do not know your ways or your technolgies.”

“Our technologies not so different than your drawings. Many of your inventions paved the way for ours. You will adapt quickly. You’ll thrive.” Red glanced at the books. A sketch was wedged between two of them. It appeared to be a machine with intricate gears. “We need you to help invent something for us.”

“Me? But you can travel to the past. Your world must adequately advanced.”

“In many ways, yes. But this eludes us.”

“What?”

“We need a special type of engine that can fold space so that we can travel farther. We know there are no planets that are hospitable in our galaxy.”

The old man’s eyes turned back towards her as he worked his fingers around a gold ring on this left hand. He turned the ring and pulled it back and forth.

“How far do you have to go?”

“We do not know, but we have planned for a journey up to 1,000 years.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So that your children’s children to the tenth may survive?”

“Anything to save the human genome.”

“Genome? I have not heard that word, but in latin the verb geno means ‘to bring forth’, or ‘to be born’.”

Red was silent.

“I cannot return with you,” he said. “I am too old. My mind, like my body, has grown weak. I grow more tired each day. I am slipping away, like that candle.” He gestured to the puddle of wax on the floor. “You should have come to collect me when I was younger.”

“We could not. Your work needed to complete its historical timeline.”

“I can offer you something else instead.”

Red frowned, unable to hide her displeasure. “Tell me,” she said anyway.

“My assistant, Francesca Melzi. You may know her as Francesco, but I assure you she is a woman, though she hides as a man. Much like yourself.”

“Your assistant?”

“And a select drawings for some of my more … advanced devices.”

“I cannot accept that.” Red could see that she would not be able to convince him, but she couldn’t give in so easily. “It must be you.”

“My dear, Francesca is more brilliant that I ever was. She is a star on a dark night. She will serve you well.”

Outside the door to the old man’s bedroom, Red heard a soft knock.

“Ah, there she is now.” He adjusted himself on the pillow, his face suddenly aglow. “Francesca, come in.”

“Wait! I have more to say,” Red said as she gripped his hand.

“There is nothing you can say to change my mind, dear girl. Tell your collectors that they have misjudged me. I am a humble man, too old for ego. Too old to really care about you and your lost future.”

da-vinci-5

Libertine

Daniel was no one important, just an American kid with a twitch, visiting friends in Buenos Aires for the summer.

And Libertine? Well, she was a moment — the kind that sends ripples across a pond under the soft splash of mayflies. The sort that reminded him of the moon on a hot evening as a fan clicks overhead with knotted pink yarn used as a makeshift cord. He recalled her bedroom with its cement block walls painted teal green and a poster of dappled horses galloping across a field of dandelions, corners bulging with crumpled balls of masking tape. There had been a small, stuffed bear poised in the windowsill, eyes the size of quarters, fur glinting from the white Christmas lights in the backyard. Its ears perked forward at the mumble of the party’s late night conversation, which had long turned honest under the influence of Malbec.

In vino veritas.

He did not deserve her. He shouldn’t have anyone. People like him, the sort that were plagued with disease should be alone. In another time — not so long from this one — he might have been locked away in a sanitorium, hidden from the rest of society. A blemish. A blight. A shameful reminder of what could go wrong with biology. Daniel knew this.

Yet in this moment, he was with her, wholly and fully. Without any judgments, or discussions of what would happen in the future.

Libertine.

Her name meant salvation, though he would not understand what this meant for many months to come.

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Advanced Gene Therapy

Gillian was late to Dr. Foster’s class. He glowered at her through his octagonal eyeglass spectacles as she descended the steep staircase and settled in the first empty chair. She knew as well as he did that there was no excuse for tardiness while you were on his clock. This was Dr. Elwin Foster, the premier researcher in gene therapy. His class was only open to the best students. She had applied, endured two interviews and finally been accepted after being wait-listed for one semester. And now here she was on the first day of his mind-blowing lecture. Late.

Her chair creaked as she crossed her ankles and sunk deep into her seat. She unzipped her backpack and reached inside to remove her light pen and eyeglass. She positioned her eyeglass over her ear and onto the bridge of her nose, then navigated to the syllabus by touching the virtual overlay with her light pen. The syllabus read: “Advanced Gene Therapy 401: Curing Maladies, the Extension of Human Life and Beyond.”

Dr. Foster cleared his throat. “As I was saying, this class consists of one lecture per week and two practical lab classes. We’ll begin these intensive labs by genetically analyzing a randomly selected types of cancer to isolate the mutations that cause the cells to replicate unchecked.” He pressed a button to change the slide behind him to what Gillian could tell was a mutated sequence of genes. “Once you have isolated the mutation, you’ll need to figure out what mechanism is causing the malfunction and write new genetic code with instructions to repair it.”

A girl in the front raise her hand.

“Yes?”

“I don’t see any text books in the syllabus. What should we read to prepare?”

“Very astute! There are no textbooks. You’ll be graded on your problem solving skills, creativity and the total length of time it takes you to find the solution, if you can find it at all. Considering that you have learned the basics of gene therapy in preparatory classes, you should already have the proper foundation for more ambitious experiments.”

The student whispered to the girl next to her.

“And to make this even more interesting, I’ll be assigning you all new lab partners. You won’t be able to rely on the combined knowledge of your usual collaborator.”

A groan erupted from the class. By the third year of school, most students already had a designated lab partner. This was someone with whom they worked well, a person they could rely on and who challenged them, or at least matched them intellectually. Gillian’s partner was Alexia, but she hadn’t been accepted to this class. The right partner could make or break a course like this.
Wearing a smug expression, Dr. Foster crossed his arms and pushed up the sleeves of his snug fitting argyle sweater. “Everyone ready?”

The students let out a loud cry of protest.

“If you are seated in an odd row, which are the ones with the blue chairs, please look behind you.”

Gillian looked behind her. A baby-faced guy with spiky blonde hair and long, thin fingers twirled his light pen between his fingers. He wore vintage high-tops that had laces instead of magnets, and his eyeglass was made out of a pair of twentieth century horn-rimmed frames.

She inhaled slowly, then exhaled. She was hoping for a nerd. This guy looked way too cool to be in Advanced Gene Therapy.

“I guess we’re partners,” he said with a genuine lack of enthusiasm.

She nodded in agreement and held out her hand. “Gillian Morris.”

He shook it. “I’m Pol.”

“Paul?”

“No, Pol. With an ‘O’”

“Nice to meet you, Pol with an ‘O’.”

He continued to twirl the pen between his fingers.

“What’s your last name then?” Gillian couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Wasilowski.”

“Wasilowski?” Gillian repeated, playing with the sound on her tongue. The ‘W’s were pronounced like ‘V’s. “Pol Wasilowski. What sort of name is that anyway?”

He smiled. His lips were beestung, woman-ish, but in a cute way. “It’s Polish.”

“Polish?” She wondered if this would impede his proficiency in the lab.

“Yeah. I’m from Krakow.”

“Krakow?”

“Yes, Krakow. It’s in Southern Poland. Really lovely. You should visit some time.”

Gillian blushed. “Maybe.” She paused. “You don’t have much of an accent.”
He set the light pen down and leaned towards her. “Neither do you.”

“I should hope not. I’m from Iowa.”

He leaned back and began twirling the light pen again. “Iowa. Such a desolate place. But pretty … really pretty.”

“You’ve been?”

“Not yet.”

So flirty. Gillian had to remind herself to breathe.

“So when can you get together to study?” Pol asked.

“Mondays or Wednesdays work best for me.” This was true. She had back-to-back classes on the other days.

“Wednesdays then,” he said. “Meet in the lab, say 10am?”

“Sure.”

Pol crossed his ankles. His black, acid washed jeans tightened over his thigh.

She bit her lip. He cleared his throat. “Don’t you think we should get the most uncomfortable question out of the way?”

She knew what he meant. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

“Ladies first.”

She smiled. “I’m 135. What are you?”

He hesitated and thumbed the light pen again. “I’m 133.”

“So, our IQs are about the same. That’s good.”

“You’re two points higher.” He looked worried.

“Two points is like spitting hairs.”

He shrugged and looked away. She hoped he wasn’t one of those guys who needed to be smarter than his girlfriends. Whoa. She was getting way ahead of herself. He was really cute though. Smart enough too. But boyfriend material? Probably not.

Dr. Foster clapped his hands. “Okay, class. I hope you are satisfied with your new partner.”

He crossed the stage and rubbed his hands together in an overeager gesture that reminded her of an evil comic book character. “Now, down to business. To earn an ‘A’ in my class, I expect you to be working all the time. You will work harder than you ever thought possible. Your eyes will bleed, you will fall asleep standing up. You may even forget your name.”

The class chuckled.

“I am not joking.”

Gillian glanced at Pol. He locked eyes with her.

Dr. Foster cleared his throat. “Let’s begin. Please open the file titled ‘Lecture 1: Common Genetic Mutations that Lead to Cancer’.”

After class, Gillian followed Pol up the stairs and out the double doors. “Did you see the homework for this week?” he asked. “It’s going to take at least 20 hours to finish.”

Gillian pushed her eyeglass onto the crown of her head. “I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with my other classes. I mean, I knew this was going to be intense, but I guess I didn’t realize it would be this bad.”

“Maybe we should meet twice a week. Mondays too?”

Her heart leaped in her chest. She tried to slow her pulse by inhaling with a deep breath. “Yeah, Monday works.”

“See you then.”

He nodded, swung his backpack over his shoulders and zipped up his black hoodie. “I have a good feeling. I think this will be an excellent semester.”

Gillian smiled. “I think so too.”

They pushed through the doors of the lecture hall into the brisk autumn day dappled with soft, golden light. She was about to ask him out for a beer under the guise of discussing what they were going to work on in lab when she heard Alexia’s voice.

“Gilly! Pol!”

She turned just in time to see her friend rush towards them and hook her arm around Pol’s waist. He stiffened.

“I see you two have met.” Alexia beamed up at Pol. “Gilly, I was going to tell you about him. He’s so great, isn’t he?”

Gillian didn’t know what to say. Alexia always had a new boyfriend. She couldn’t keep track. And no wonder with those big, fawn eyes and long, espresso hair. Every guy fell for her at some point.

“We’re partners,” Gillian said. It was all she could manage to get out.

“Oh?” She squeezed Pol’s hand. “Gilly is my oldest and best friend in the world. She’s a great partner too. You’ll see.”

Pol nodded, then averted his gaze and shifted his feet. “That’s great, Lexie. We should go.”

“Gilly, we’re going to see the space shuttle launch tonight. Do you want to come?”

The thought of sitting on a blanket with Alexia and Pol made her stomach lurch.

She wasn’t sure why. After all, she’d only just met him. “Um. I … no, I have to do some homework.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, but thank you.” She turned to Pol. “It was nice meeting you. Monday, then?”

“Yeah. See you then.”

Gillian lowered her eyeglass and pretended to check her e-mail as they walked away. She read ten messages, but she couldn’t remember a word. She marked them all unopened, put her headphones on, turned on some Baroque and walked back to her apartment.

Cancer cells iStockPhoto 11115

Dandelions

Bury me with her
When the wind blows again
Like it did back then.
Summer on the plains
Tall grass at my knees
Dandelions soft and gray,
Taking flight into the breeze
That tangles my hair.

My feet are silent,
Wrapped in skin
As the sound of a steam engine
Chugging on a rusty track
Rattles my ears.
Sky is still, blue, warm.
Clouds like kites
Wisps of white, spun sugar
Brushing my fingertips.

She lies near here,
By the three tall timbers
That were once a barn.
When the day is like my dreams,
And the land has ripened,
After I am old.
Bury me with her,
I will never leave again.

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