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i. 2013

Dear Ms. Freeman, the letter begins, we are pleased to inform you that you have been selected for the Dean’s Scholars program for the 2013-2014 school year . It goes on to describe the money--extensive--and the academic requirements--also extensive, but probably manageable.

“It’s not like money’s why I’m enlisting,” Nile says to her cousin, who says, “You’re a fucking idiot if you think this doesn’t change anything,” as she rips a fried shrimp in half with her fingertips.

“But it doesn’t,” Nile tries. 

Dani gives her a dead-eyed stare as she licks crumbs off of her fingertips. “Why’d I expect any different?” she says under her breath. “Of course you’re an idiot.”

“I’m not--” Nile insists hotly, and then she gives up on their staring contest and focuses on her carton of onion rings. “I’m choosing , okay? This is a choice that I’m actively making, it’s not like I was here thinking there wasn’t any way for me to get money for school.”

Dani scoffs and shoves a piece of shrimp between her lips with her thumb and forefinger. 

“Mom told me--” Nile tries and Dani says, more loudly, “ An idiot .” There are a handful of other people scattered along the length of the bridge, shoveling catfish into their mouths, crunching through the shells of smoked shrimp with their fingertips, and a few of them look up at Dani’s pronouncement.

“Will you stop ?” Nile hisses.

“Why the hell should I?” Dani says, loud and skeptical. “If I stop, you’re just gonna fuck up your life.”

“He didn’t fuck up,” Nile says.

“Well he’s not here, is he?” Dani replies swiftly. She takes advantage of Nile’s distracted fuming to snag an onion ring. “I would say that’s kind of fucking up.”

“I don’t want to argue with you about my dad,” Nile tells her.

“Oh, yeah, cause I fucking love talking about this,” Dani says, crunching through her onion ring. “The whole Dead Dad thing really gets me cranked.”

“Why are you even here?” Nile asks her, feeling her tone sliding from belligerent to pleading, totally unable to stop it. “Are you even allowed to leave the state?”

“I’m pregnant, not on fucking parole,” Dani says, like it hadn’t taken her close to ten minutes to sit down on the bridge without pitching head-first into the river. “You’re driving me back, by the way. When Ron heard that I drove myself here he had a heart attack.”

“Yeah, because you’re gonna pop that baby out in like two seconds,” Nile says. “Wait, should you--aren’t you not supposed to eat fish?” She makes a grab for Dani’s container of fried shrimp and gets an elbow to the chest for her trouble.

“Hands off,” Dani says sharply. “Shrimp’s fine.”

“You took like half my onion rings,” Nile says. “Gimme a shrimp.”

Dani says, “You done being an idiot?”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Nile says, although of course she does. 

“It means, are you gonna take that scholarship?” Dani’s stare is so probing that Nile has to look away, back down at her onion rings. The five she’d managed to eat before Dani had decided to open this hellish discussion about Nile’s academic future are roiling in her stomach, a storm cloud of breading and soft onion. 

Nile says nothing for a while. She listens to her cousin crunch through a few more shrimp and then noisily suck on her straw. A couple comes out of Calumet Fisheries and wanders down the bridge, looking for a place to sit and eat their smoked fish. The air smells of stagnant water and frying oil, with a faint, sweet tinge that’s probably from Dani’s open cup of Sprite.

Nile finally feels her stomach settle enough to risk another onion ring, which is the point at which Dani says, casually, “If you still want to enlist after college, you can go right into officer training. Skip some of the bullshit.”

“You’re just saying that because you think I won’t enlist if I go to school first,” Nile says.

“Yeah,” Dani agrees. “Doesn’t make me wrong, though.”

After a long minute, Nile says, “Not everybody who enlists dies.”

“Wow,” Dani says, deadpan. “Color me fucking shocked at that insight, genius.” When Nile whips her head around to glare at her, Dani is staring right back at her, mouth pursed. It’s such a mom look. Nile is shocked by it for a second, which is long enough for Dani to say, “There are other ways to honor his memory, you know. You can save the world even if you’re not wearing that uniform.”

~

Nile drives Dani home so Ron doesn’t have a second heart attack over his extremely pregnant wife operating heavy machinery a full week after her due date. It takes three hours with the traffic stop-and-go the full length of I-65 and Dani, still cranky, refuses to listen to anything except the same Santigold CD on repeat. 

Nile’s only just pulled into Dani’s driveway when her cousin says, abruptly, “You know you’re the godmother, right?”

“Uh, no?” Nile says. “I thought you were asking Maria.”

“Why would I ask Maria ?” Dani says.

“She’s your best friend!” Nile says. “She actually lives in Indianapolis!”

“You really don’t know anything about anything,” Dani observes as she extremely clumsily lumbers out of the passenger side of the car. “I’d say some shit about the school of life but I’m, uh,” she says, ending the statement breathlessly. 

“I got it,” Nile says drily. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Dani says, holding onto the car door once she’s levered herself to her feet. She makes it about two steps towards the house before she freezes mid-waddle. “ Fuck ,” she says.

“Did your water just break ?” Nile shrieks at her. Dani doesn’t answer, but the fabric of her leggings is turning dark along the backs of her thighs. “Oh my god, we have to get to the hospital. Get back in the car!”

 

ii. 2018

Calling the stretch between M1 and M2 a “summer break” is a laughable misnomer; there’s four weeks between the end of one round of classes and the beginning of the next that Nile is supposed to spend rotating with potential advisors for her PhD. 

“So what I’m hearing is that you don’t have classes for four weeks,” Dani says. Her voice is distracted, distant on the other end of the line. Nile had ducked out of her study group to take this call and is currently being subjected to the hostile stares of the med students who hadn’t been lucky enough to snag a room and are stuck with the rickety tables in the stacks.

“I don’t have classes because I have to spend forty hours a week in a lab convincing a PI that they should supervise my thesis, Dani, it’s not like I’m gonna be vegging out on the couch marathoning DS9,” Nile says, in a low hiss, trying to ignore a nearby M2 glaring at her from over the lid of his laptop.

Dani says nothing, somehow in a pointed way.

Nile groans and rubs her forehead. “She’s in a daycare, right?” she asks, reluctantly. “Like eight to six or something?”

“Drop-off starts at seven-thirty and you have to pick her up before six,” Dani says. “You can come and stay at the house, you don’t have to cart all of her shit over to your place and up twelve flights of stairs.”

“Oh, I’m definitely staying at your house,” Nile tells her. “I’m pretty sure a five-year-old tenant is in violation of my roommate agreement, let alone my lease.”

Dani says, “Thanks for doing this.”

“Right,” Nile says. “Because you were giving me a choice?”

“You can say no,” Dani says mildly. “You were born with that ability, just like the rest of us.”

The M2 is still glaring at Nile from over his laptop. Nile tucks her phone under her chin and says, “Don’t you have actual work you could be doing?” and he hisses back, “This is a library .”

“It’s not a quiet floor!” Nile says. And then, to Dani, “I have to go before this asshole tries to brain me with his computer. When are you guys leaving?” She turns away from the M2 to avoid the temptation to flip him off.

“Wednesday,” Dani says. “Are you done with your exams by then?

“Yeah,” Nile says. “Did you tell Zee you’re abandoning her?”

“Oh, yeah, she’s really torn up about it,” Dani says drily. “Aren’t you, baby? Are you sad you get to have a visit with Auntie Nile?”

“I LOVE YOU AUNTIE NILE,” Zee yells tinnily.

“Wow, did you have her practice that?” Nile asks.

“She doesn’t believe you,” Dani says, a little muffled, and then there’s a bunch of scuffling sounds as a little voice shrieks, “ I DO, I DO LOVE YOU, CAN WE GO TO THE ZOO .”

“I gotta go,” Nile says. “Tell Zee that I love her and we’ll go to the zoo, but only if she’s good.” When there’s only muffled shrieks and rustling noises, she says, more loudly, “Love you guys,” and then hangs up.

~

Wednesday morning Nile has an interview with a potential thesis advisor that goes great right up until the last ten minutes, when Dr. Kozak says, “In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to tell you that there is a small possibility that I will soon be leaving the faculty here.”

“Oh,” Nile says, trying not to visibly deflate.

“I feel obliged to offer you some transparency,” Dr. Kozak continues, looking sympathetic. “I have applied to join a research group in the UK.”

“Oh,” Nile says, again. It’s not that she’s any more interested in Dr. Kozak’s research than that of the other faculty members she’s met with, but she really had felt that this interview was going well. It’s kind of depressing to realize that it’s going so well because Dr. Kozak is not invested in the outcome. “Well, I appreciate that you’re being honest with me.”

“I always enjoy mentoring students,” Dr. Kozak says. “If I stay, I would be delighted to have you rotate with us. The choice is yours.”

Nile shakes Dr. Kozak’s hand, agrees that she’ll send an email with her decision within the next few days, and broods over her options as she hikes to her car. Is it dumb to rotate with Dr. Kozak, even with the possibility that she’ll be gone in six months and Nile will have to somehow find time to shoe-horn yet another rotation into her M2 class schedule, which already only has room for about five hours of sleep a night? Nile knows what Dani would say.

Nile is still brooding when she pulls into the driveway of Dani and Ron’s house and she sits in her car for a few minutes after she’s turned it off, trying to cheer herself up. She has two rotations already lined up; she doesn’t have to decide about Dr. Kozak’s offer for a few days. And it’s totally possible she’ll really like one of those two other rotations. Not every decision you make goes catastrophically wrong , Nile reminds herself.

“AUNTIE NILE,” Zee shrieks, body-slamming the door of Nile’s car, and Nile returns to herself with an almost audible snap. 

“Hey, Zee,” Nile says, rolling down the driver’s side window; she’s a little worried that if she tries to open the door she’ll just clock Zee in the face. “Aren’t you supposed to be in daycare or something?”

“I stayed home because Mom and Dad are going to Florida,” Zee says. “WITHOUT ME.”

“I know,” Nile says. “You have to stay here with me instead.”

“But I want to go to Florida,” Zee says. Apparently her enthusiasm for staying with Nile has been tempered by the realization that her parents are going somewhere she thinks would be fun. She digs her little fingers into the top of the car door and jumps up and down with this additional leverage. “There are PYTHONS in Florida, Auntie Nile. And LEOPARDS.”

“There are pythons at the zoo,” Nile points out.

“The PYTHONS in FLORIDA eat DOGS,” Zee says. “Can we go watch a python eat a dog at the zoo?”

“Uh,” Nile says. “Probably not.”

“I want to go to FLORIDA,” Zee wails and she detaches from the door of Nile’s car to sprint back into the house. “Moooooooooom!”

The screen door slams shut behind Zee, cutting off the tail end of her wail, and Nile fights with the window of her car for a few minutes, trying to manually winch it shut. By the time she’s finished, Ron has come out onto the front stoop and is watching her shameful struggle, arms folded across his chest. “Hey,” he calls when Nile finally climbs out of the car. “Thanks for doing this, Nile.”

“No problem,” Nile assures him, coming close enough that he can fold her into his arms. “I’m sorry about your mom,” she tells him quietly, burying her face into the crook of his neck. He smells like shaving soap and laundry detergent.

“Thanks,” he says in a quiet rumble, squeezing her tightly and then releasing her. “Your mom’s helping me plan a memorial for after we get back. You’ll be there, won’t you?”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Nile promises him. “Do you guys need anything else for the drive? I can run and grab it for you if you’re still packing.”

“No, we’re set,” Ron assures her. He opens the screen door and holds it for her, gesturing for Nile to precede him into the house. The living room is a mess, with flattened cardboard boxes piled on the coffee table and two fat duffle bags resting on top of a pyramid of suitcases. There’s bubble wrap everywhere.

“Jesus,” Nile says as Dani comes around the corner from the kitchen, Zee tucked up in her arms as she wails about pythons. “I thought you guys were just going to go down and sell everything in the house?”

Dani rolls her eyes. “Once we’re down there, there’ll be hundreds of things that Ron’s going to want to bring back.”

Ron’s expression clearly conveys that he doesn’t believe her, but he’s been married to Nile’s cousin for seven years at this point and he knows better than to argue.

“Can you fit hundreds of things in here?” Nile asks, making a show of looking around the living room. Any surface not covered in rolls of bubble wrap is occupied by a terracotta pot with some kind of philodendron. There’s an actual vine growing over the front window. “You might have to get rid of some of the jungle you’ve got growing in here.” 

Dani says, “I’ll take your advice on plant care the day you can keep a cactus alive for longer than a week.”

Nile protests with an annoyed, “hey!” as Dani comes over and deposits Zee in her arms. “We gotta pack the car,” she tells Nile. “Hold onto the monkey for me, will you?” Zee is still quietly wailing about pythons, but she’s losing steam.

Nile begins carefully bouncing Zee in her arms, singing the animal cracker song under her breath. Ron and Dani have both disappeared out through the front door with armfuls of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes by the time she succeeds in getting a smile out of Zee, who begins cackling when Nile sings, “Monkeys and lions loop-the-loop,” and makes a show of spinning them around, threatening like she’s going to let Zee tip ass-over-teakettle onto the couch. 

After they finish the animal cracker song, Zee wants to sing fucking Baby Shark--because: of course she does--and Nile puts her down so they can both do the arm movements. Nile has basically no time to go to the gym, because M1 is a hellish existence and M2 promises to be, somehow, worse, but lugging Zee around constantly has given her pretty good upper-body strength. She offers to help Ron cart the duffles and empty suitcases out to the car but he waves her off. It’s obvious the man has performed Baby Shark too many times to be interested in ever doing it again.

Dani and Ron come back inside to say goodbye and once Zee starts crying it sets off Ron and Dani, who both pretend not to be sniffling. Nile forces Zee to wave goodbye--she’s back to sobbing about pythons--and then they sit on the front stoop for a few minutes, watching Ron and Dani’s ancient Pontiac Safari disappear down the street. “How long will Mom and Dad not be here?” Zee sobs sadly.

“One week,” Nile reminds her. “That’s only seven days.”

Zee says, pathetically, “Seven days to go to the zoo?” 

“I have to work during the week,” Nile says gently. “You have to go to daycare. But we can go to the zoo on the weekend.” Nile almost promises that they can go both Saturday and Sunday--the Indianapolis Zoo is cheap enough that she won’t go broke with those ticket prices--but she stops herself at the last second. She’ll probably need a second zoo trip as a bribe for good behavior.

“I don’t want to go to daycare,” Zee says. “I want to go to the zoo and see a python eat a dog.”

“Well, I have to go to work,” Nile says. “So if you want to get to the zoo, you’re gonna have to hitchhike. Or learn how to teleport.”

Nile leaves Zee to practice her teleporting in the front yard and goes inside to see if there’s enough stuff in the fridge for dinner tonight. It doesn’t surprise her to find that the fridge is basically a barren wasteland--Ron’s mom dying had been a sudden, unexpected thing and he and Dani had been left reeling by the realization that they had to get down to Florida basically immediately to clear out the house that she rented. Even in the best of times, Dani and Ron are reluctant domestics.

“Zee! What do you want for dinner?” Nile yells. Ron and Dani’s house isn’t that big; Zee should be able to hear her through the screen door. But there’s no answer and a little creeping feeling of dread has startled to prickle across the surface of Nile’s scalp. “Zee!” she yells, booking it through the doorway into the living room and then banging her way out onto the front stoop. “What do you want-- fuck !”

As Nile sprints across the front lawn, she can hear Zee exuberantly shrieking that she’s practicing her teleporting. Time doesn’t so much slow down as Nile feels like she speeds up to meet it, as if her hearing has sharpened to the point where she can hear the individual bumps and lifts in the sound waves. She crosses the front yard in an acutely felt four seconds and then launches herself off of the curb into the middle of the street, where she’s able to swing Zee out of the way just in time to be herself crunched across the unforgiving hood of an olive green Chrysler Cirrus.

“Motherfucker!” Nile wheezes from the asphalt, feeling like she’s literally just been torn in half. “Mother! Fucker!”

“AUNTIE NILE?” Zee is wailing from the sidewalk.

“Don’t move!” Nile shouts at her. And then, as a shaky teenager climbs out of the front seat of the Chrysler, Nile switches to shouting at him. “What the hell were you thinking? Children live on this street!”

“I--I--I’m--” he stutters, staring at her with eyes so wide that she can see all the way around his irises. “I’m--so--”

“You better be!” Nile hisses at him. She tries to sit up and it hurts so bad that all she can do is lay back down again, quickly. Something doesn’t feel right in her torso; it feels like she can actually feel her spleen, which she shouldn’t be able to do. Her chest is so hot; her fingers are really cold. “Zee, stay on the sidewalk!” she says, and that’s when she blacks out.

~

She wakes up pretty quickly to the same scene; teenager, wide-eyed and trembling, Zee screaming on the sidewalk. No one else has come to investigate the noise. This time of day, most of Ron and Dani’s neighbors are at work. The elementary school down the street is closed for the summer.

“Are you okay?” the teenager finally manages to ask. “I thought--you--you--” and he looks almost ashen. 

Nile tries to sit up again, an involuntary action to check on Zee, and she manages it this time. Her whole body aches but that strange, swollen feeling must’ve been some kind of adrenaline surge; her temperature feels better and she’s able to sit up without feeling like she’s going to break her body in half. “How long was I out?” she asks the teenager.

He stares at her blankly, clearly in too much shock to be helpful. Probably not that long, then. Even someone this stupid would’ve thought to call an ambulance eventually.

“Are you okay?” he repeats.

“I probably have a concussion,” Nile says, feeling the back of her head. Her hand comes away bloody but when she gently probes for the edges of a wound, her skin feels rough but not actually broken in any places. Must have just been a scrape. “Listen, you shouldn’t be driving so fast on this street. There’s a school--there are so many kids around here.”

“I’m so sorry ,” the teenager says. 

“You should be,” Nile says. “But nobody died, so you’re getting off okay-- this time . If you ever speed down this street again, my cousin’s gonna kill you.”

The teenager comes and helps Nile get to her feet and then he asks if she wants his insurance information--so, not quite so stupid. Nile takes it just in case. He drives off, going about four miles an hour, and Nile collects Zee, purple-faced and blubbering, from the sidewalk. After Nile has a short, hot shower and does a quick exam of her torso--tender, but surprisingly unbruised--she and Zee walk to the Five Guys around the corner and split a bacon cheeseburger and some cajun fries and have a very long discussion about not playing in the street, not even for teleportation practice. Zee seems legitimately terrified, which Nile would feel bad about except it seems like this particular life lesson is going to stick pretty well.

Nile texts Kafue that night after Zee’s in bed, So I got hit by a car today, kinda? and he sends back a barf emoji and then fourteen question marks.

Prob fine , Nile sends back. I hit my head and blacked out, though, so: concussion .

Omg I’ll drive down tomorrow , Kafue replies. Does Dani know????

I’ll do it tomorrow, when they’re too far to turn around , Nile texts. You don’t have to come .

If you bleed to death in your sleep, Zee’s gonna be totally scarred for life , Kafue sends her, which is certainly true. Should I tell Mom?

Nile’s knee-jerk instinct is that she absolutely doesn’t want her mom to know about either the car or the concussion, but that’s just pure cowardice talking. Yea , she replies instead.

Ten minutes later Kafue sends her an obscure emoji message: kissy face, head exploding, rocket, pink sparkly heart, green heart, sweat drop. Nile spends a while squinting at it, trying to figure out if the head exploding emoji is supposed to be Nile with her concussion or their mom going completely nuclear with the news that her child was hit by a car, and then she gives up. She can just ask Kafue tomorrow how that conversation went.

~

Nile sleeps like the dead and wakes up the next morning feeling completely fine. Even her headache is gone.

 

iii. 2020

Nile’s waiting in line for an overpriced strawberry glazed donut when her phone buzzes aggressively. 3.23PM: Knife emoji; 3.24PM: Knife emoji, knife emoji; 3.25PM: Knife emoji, eggplant emoji.

Nile immediately thumbs past her lock screen and calls Kafue. “Shit,” she says as soon as he picks up. “Really?”

“Some fucking sophomore named Gage ,” Kafue says venomously. “I fucking knew it. I should have lit his shit on fire when I had the chance.”

Nile says. “What kind of a name is Gage ?”

“HIs dad owns a yacht,” Kafue says. “Victor was all, it was just once, we had too many wine coolers on the boat .”

“Oh my god,” Nile says reflexively.

“I can’t believe I thought I’d gotten lucky,” Kafue says, still with that hot lick of acid chasing his words. “Everybody says that you shouldn’t date the asshole in your MFA but I thought I’d found one of the good assholes.”

“Babe, there’s no such thing,” Nile tells him.

“Dani’s a good asshole,” Kafue says.

“You want to date somebody like Dani?” Nile points out and Kafue huffs instead of answering. “I’m really sorry,” Nile tells him, inching forward in line as the two ICU nurses in front of her begin listing off the two dozen donuts they want packed into boxes.

“Yeah, me too,” Kafue says. “God, Mom’s gonna be--ugh, she hates Victor so much, she spent like a full week at Christmas trying to talk me into dumping him.”

Nile hadn’t particularly liked what little she’d seen of Kafue’s boyfriend last Christmas, either, but she’d only been home for about three days and it had seemed stupid to waste them getting herself involved in that brewing shitstorm. When Kafue had called her a few days after New Year’s, all, What’d you think? Isn’t he great? Nile had said, He can keep up with Dani, which is more than I can say for basically any of the other people you’ve dated , and Kafue had been pleased by the insinuation that Victor was clever. 

“Do you want me to tell her?” Nile asks. The ICU nurses start listing off coffee orders in what appears to be alphabetical order, one of them reading off of her phone.

Kafue says, reluctantly, “I mean, I can do it.”

“It’s okay,” Nile says. “I owe her a call anyway, it’s been a few days.”

“Ugh,” Kafue says, with a loud, tired sigh. “Do you think we’re gonna be forty and we’ll still be trading off on who has to give Mom bad news?”

“Yeah,” Nile says. “I mean, what’s the difference between now and forty, really?”

“Uh, a catastrophic amount of student debt,” Kafue says, “but yeah, point made.” He puts a false bit of brightness into his voice and says, “So, how’s it going? Science, and all that?”

“My science is going great,” Nile tells him, grinning into the distance at Kafue’s palpable distaste. “Meta just landed us this grant with a pharma company. They’re covering my stipend until I hear back about my F30 application, plus there’s money for new techs. They want all this dumb, extra shit, though--weekly phone calls, monthly Skype conferences, a joint lab meeting.”

Kafue says, “Sounds productive?”

“It’s busy work,” Nile tells him. “But it’s seriously, like, a ridiculous amount of money. One sec,” and then she lowers her phone for a second and asks the tired-looking woman behind the display case, “Can I get a strawberry glazed and a large iced coffee, please? Cream, no sugar.”

“Sure thing, hon,” the woman says. “What about you?” she asks the next guy in line as Nile lifts her phone back to her ear.

“Two small coffees,” he says. Nile automatically flicks a glance at him, abstractly notices that he’s pretty hot, and then is distracted by the busy work of swiping her debit card, fishing out a crumpled dollar bill to shove into the tip jar, and humming in the right places as Kafue starts in on a long rant about the seminar he’s TAing this semester. She thanks the barista for her iced coffee and is absently swirling it as she exits back onto the street. The hot guy holds the door for her. Their eyes meet for a second and he gives her a slow, crinkly-eyed smile, and then strides off to meet some equally hot guy on the corner, handing him one of the coffees. 

~

Meta calls Nile into her office a few days later, which mostly consists of her leaning out of her doorway, shouting, “Freeman!” and then disappearing back inside. Two years ago, when Nile had been starting M2 and interviewing with potential thesis advisors, Meta had been excruciatingly polite and friendly. It had only taken Nile about three months after joining her lab to realize that this was Meta on her best behavior, and grad students who worked for her were not entitled to that treatment on a regular basis.

Nile tugs out her earbuds and abandons her sequencing pipeline triage. When she knocks on the doorframe of Meta’s office, Meta is video-conferencing with a few people whose pixelated faces are tiny blurs in the corner of her computer monitor. She has Nile’s latest lab meeting PowerPoint open. “Dr. Kozak?” Nile asks politely, since there are witnesses.

“Nile, thanks for coming,” Meta says pleasantly. “This is the team from Merrick. They have a few questions about the induced pluripotent stem cell model that you’re developing.”

“Sure, of course,” Nile says, stepping more fully into Meta’s office.

“Dr. Kozak tells us that you’re developing a model for wound healing,” one of the tiny blurs says in a comically snooty British accent. “I’d like to know what makes your model different from the extant ones, other than being extremely expensive to develop.”

Nile feels her spine stiffen at this. “If you’re familiar with models for wound healing, you’re aware that most of them are cultured fibroblasts,” she says coldly. “They have some relevance for skin, although even that is limited, which is why another student in the lab is developing an induced pluripotent model of stratified squamous epithelium. There is no current high-throughput model for skeletal muscle repair.”

Another snooty British pixelated face says, “Concisely put. Thank you, Ms. Freeman wasn’t it? So you anticipate your model will eventually be able to test compounds that might aid in healing both skin and muscle injuries?”

“Yes,” Meta says. “Ideally the muscle iPSC model will be able to quickly identify any compounds whose repair mechanisms do not include fibrosis. The goal is complete regeneration without scar formation.”

Although Nile has heard Meta give this spiel a number of times, it’s clear that it’s relatively fresh news to the talking heads at Merrick Pharmaceuticals; there’s an eruption of furious whispering. Someone with a Scandinavian accent asks, “How are you inducing myofiber differentiation? A MyoD cassette?”

Meta gestures impatiently for Nile to answer, and then it’s a question about if the model can be used for heart injuries--Nile carefully skirts her way around that one, since the answer is basically no --and then another question about immune infiltrates and then Nile blinks and it’s noon and Meta is ending the meeting. Nile feels sort of like she did after her qualifying exam, like her brain has been squeezed through a cheese grater. Her throat hurts.

“You did well,” Meta says briskly.

“Thanks,” Nile replies. It’s hard not to feel a little burn of warmth in her chest at this--Meta rarely offers empty praise to her students. “Uh, should we be thinking about a cardiac model?”

“Protocols for induced pluripotent cardiomyocytes are well-established,” Meta says. “If we have to get one off the ground, it shouldn’t take very long. I’d prefer you to focus on your current work. We should be receiving the first of the test compounds from Merrick in about three months.” The entire time she speaks, her fingers never stop clacking across her keyboard. Being Meta Kozak, MD PhD seems to involve a literal never-ending stream of emails.

Nile only just manages to keep her jaw shut. Three months ? Nile’s still testing MyoD cassettes and Yamanaka factor cocktails. 

“I’m not sure we’re going to be finished optimizing the differentiation in three months,” Nile finally decides to say.

“Testing doesn’t need to begin immediately,” Meta says absently. “I anticipate we’re going to end up more in the realm of gene editing than pharmacological intervention, regardless, and choosing those targets will take time. For now, focus on getting the differentiation up and running.”

“Right,” Nile says. She’s been working for Meta long enough to know that doesn’t need to begin immediately means that Meta is giving her a whole extra month to get this differentiation protocol finalized. In a sort of dazed state, Nile leaves Meta’s office and returns to her desk, where her broken sequencing pipeline is still waiting for her in a Python window. After a few minutes of staring at her blinking cursor, she stands up again and announces, “I need a donut. Coffee, anybody?”

~

The hot guy is at the donut shop again. He’s sitting at one of the tables by the window, alone, reading a paperback whose pages have passed yellow and gone straight into brown. There’s half of a cinnamon-sugar old-fashioned on a napkin next to his steaming coffee.

“Nile?” Veronica says, clearly not for the first time, and Nile snaps her head around. It’s not that he’s hot, necessarily, although obviously it’s nice to look at beautiful people. There’s just something about his face that keeps nagging at Nile, almost like she’s seen it before. 

“Can I get a strawberry glazed, please?” she asks the guy behind the counter. “And a large iced coffee. Actually--sorry, can I get a large iced mocha?”

Veronica says, voice low and sympathetic, “Wow, Meta must’ve done a number on you. You were in her office for like three hours, what happened?”

Nile pays for her coffee and donut and says, “I have four months to finish optimizing the myofiber differentiation,” and then, “thanks,” to the barista when he forks over her iced mocha. “Originally I had three but Meta generously extended the deadline by a whole month.”

“Oh my god ,” Veronica squawks. She’s clutching a tray of four sweating iced coffees and a bag of donut holes to her chest. “What do you want to bet she’s going to be calling me into her office next? Fuck .”

“If they want the muscle model done in four months, they probably want the skin model, too,” Nile says grimly. It makes her feel a little better to know that Meta’s absurdly high expectations are being spread evenly amongst her students.

Fuck ,” Veronica says again, loudly, and Hot Guy looks up from his paperback. He sweeps a glance over the pair of them and for a second it seems to Nile that his eyes linger on her, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes, and then he goes back to reading.

“Do you think I shouldn’t take that week off next month?” Veronica asks Nile as they leave the donut shop and quickly cross the street. Nile fumbles for her ID to swipe them back into the building, the mysterious hot guy still nagging at the back of her mind like something stuck between her teeth. “My husband’s gonna kill me, I’ve been promising him for literally a full year that we’d have an actual vacation this summer.”

“I can’t believe you thought you were gonna get a whole week away,” Nile finally says to her, cracking a smile, and Veronica groans loudly as they file onto the elevator.

~

Nile’s on her way to the donut shop a week later, on a mission to pick up a bunch of donuts for lab meeting, when she sees the second dude, Equally Hot Friend, picking at a sandwich in the window of the Potbelly’s next door. He has a laptop and file folders spread around him, a half-finished milkshake with the cookie still around the straw.

It hadn’t occurred to Nile before that they might also work at the medical school, but it seems like an obvious answer now that she’s considering it. They must be familiar because Nile has seen them before--at grand rounds or the second floor cafeteria in the hospital or the mandatory Ethics in Life Sciences seminar series. 

When she passes Potbelly on the return trip, iced coffee in one hand and a box of a baker’s dozen in the other, Equally Hot Friend has vacated the window seat and there’s a tired-looking mom with a double stroller sitting there instead.

~

Being a PhD student is in some ways better and in many ways worse than being a medical student. Nile’s done with classes, which is nice--no exams for a few years!--but she’s picked a thesis project that involves induced pluripotent stem cells, which are a finicky model system that requires constant maintenance. Nile at least got days off when she was a medical student, even if she spent them making flashcards in her pajamas. There are no days off as a PhD student.

So those cells are basically Tamagotchis , Dani had said after Nile had finished trying to explain why she couldn’t go to Chicago for Thanksgiving last year.

Sure , Nile had said, although she wasn’t one hundred percent sure what a Tamagotchi was.

Nile comes into the lab at 8AM every day because she finds Mondays much less brutal if she doesn’t sleep in on the weekends. If she has plans later in the day she’ll usually feed her cells and bail--home by 10AM, plenty of time to shower before heading over to Dani and Ron’s or brunch with her med school friends, now all M4s with ridiculous rotations and budding alcoholism--but she often takes her time. There’s something really enjoyable about the quiet lab in the early morning, when Nile is the only person there and she can sing along to music while counting and splitting cells.

The only person Nile ever sees in the lab on the weekends is Veronica, who will occasionally stumble in around 9AM if her kids have a soccer tournament or something. Because Nile knows for a fact that the pee wee soccer season ended last week--Zee’s team crushed their rivals in the championship game and Nile had taken her out for pizza to celebrate--she’s not expecting to see anyone in lab and is accordingly humming WAP to herself when she leaves the human TC room, peeling off her gloves, and walks straight into a heated argument amongst strangers.

They all turn in unison when Nile freezes in place, left glove off, right glove hooked around her wrist. It turns out not to be all strangers--Meta is there, in her pristine white coat, with a rubber tourniquet and purple top blood collection tube in her hands. There are about ten guys dressed all in black and a woman in a tank top with a professional lesbian haircut sitting in the rolling chair at Veronica’s bench.

“Nile,” Meta says. “Good morning.”

“Uh,” Nile says, automatically shifting her weight onto her back foot. Professional Lesbian Haircut is watching Nile with chilly, focused eyes. Her left wrist is handcuffed to the arm of Veronica’s rolling chair. “Dr. Kozak, what’s--uh--this?”

“Sample collection,” Meta says, very calmly. “I emailed you last week to expect patient cells on Monday.”

“Right,” Nile says. “And the, uh, handcuffs?”

“I’m afraid the patient is afraid of needles,” Meta says, in exactly the same steady voice she’d used last year when Veronica had been convinced that she was going to fail her qualifying exam and had had a panic attack in the women’s bathroom. If I thought you were going to fail, I would not have hidden it from you during your preparations , Meta had said through the door, and although Nile had found that a little comforting, Veronica had just broken into hysterical sobs.

Professional Lesbian Haircut rolls her shoulders back, one at a time, like she’s loosening them. She’s staring at Nile with a very strange expression on her face. It reminds Nile, absurdly, of the mysterious hot guy at the donut shop and his equally hot friend at Potbelly’s. There’s almost an expectant weight to it.

Nile says, feeling her voice go hard, “And the guns?”

Professional Lesbian Haircut twists her right arm and jabs the guy standing behind her twice with her crooked elbow, once in the gut and then a second time in the solar plexus, and he wheezes and collapses. All of the other guys in black go for their guns. Meta yanks the orange top off of a nearby insulin syringe--Veronica uses them to break up membranes when she’s lysing cells--and tries to jab Professional Lesbian Haircut in the throat with it.

Nile turns on her heel and ducks down the equipment corridor in an awkward crouched sprint. She has no thought except her immediate need to get away . The entire scene is so incongruous that she makes it to the freight elevator, breath stuck in her throat, and wonders as she jabs the elevator call button if she’s actually just hallucinated all of it.

The freight elevator makes a bright ding! as the doors open. Hot Guy and Equally Hot Friend are inside, bruised and covered in blood. Hot Guy is carrying a sword; Equally Hot Friend has a handgun and also a sword. Somehow the two swords look completely different from each other. Probably Kafue would know the difference; he used to really be into cosplay.

Nile immediately turns on her heel and sprints for the fire stairs. “Hey!” someone hisses after her. “We’re not the bad guys!” She hits the door with both palms extended, depressing the crash bar with the full weight of her body, and is already halfway to the next landing when she hears a contemplative, “ That’s probably going to be something we need to deal with ,” floating from the equipment corridor before the door closes behind her.

Nile has zero desire to learn what it means to be something that needs to be dealt with and puts on an extra burst of speed, actually levering herself across the railing at each switchback instead of circling the landing. The fire stairs exit into the loading dock around the back of the building and Nile shoulders the door open at a run. She chances a look over her shoulder to see if she’s been followed--she’s not, at least not for now--and when she turns back around there’s a guy in a black turtleneck standing in front of the loading dock’s rolling doors, shoulder propped against the side of a grey van. 

He spots Nile the same moment she spots him and they both freeze--Nile, because she’s in the fucking middle of an empty loading dock with nowhere to hide; the guy in the turtleneck, probably because he’s not expecting to see her. Nile inhales and throws herself to the left, towards the shipping coordinator’s office, hoping like hell that Jonathan’s left his door unlocked. This seems to unfreeze the guy in the turtleneck, who yells, “Hey!” as he lifts a gun like he’s going to fucking shoot her .

He doesn’t get the chance. Someone else shoots her first.

~

Nile wakes up in the backseat of a car with a brutal headache. It’s literally so painful that all she can think about is what kind of a sadist would put somebody so fucking hungover into a moving vehicle. “What the fuck,” she mumbles under her breath. She feels like that time she was hit by a Chrysler Cirrus. “Did I get run over by a car again?” she asks without opening her eyes.

She expects Dani to say something like, Yeah, you got hit by a truck of Bottomless Bloody Marys , but instead someone with a very nice, soft voice says, “You were shot in the head.”

Nile opens her eyes and sits up so fast that she clunks her forehead into someone’s chin. They both make pained grunts and Nile has to squeeze her eyes shut for a second, helpless in the face of acute light sensitivity. When she opens them, Equally Hot Friend is peering at her worriedly. Her feet are in his lap. “Hey,” he says. “Welcome back.” Nile can’t quite place his accent. Hadn’t he said something about her being something that needed dealt with ?

“I was--” Nile tries, and when she twists around, it’s to see that Hot Guy is behind her, rubbing his jaw. Her head was in his lap. She looks back to Equally Hot Friend, who is wearing a very tight black t-shirt. When she swivels around a third time, she realizes that Professional Lesbian Haircut is driving and some white guy with scraggly facial hair is in the passenger’s seat. They’re speeding north on MLK, she realizes as they cross the bridge over Fall Creek. She is in a car with four people covered in blood and they’re going north on MLK and Meta had tried to stab the driver in the throat with an insulin syringe.

“Didn’t Meta stab you?” Nile asks, a little woozily.

“She tried,” Professional Lesbian Haircut says grimly.

“She didn’t just try ,” Hot Guy says, in a faintly accusative way. 

“Why did my thesis advisor try to stab you?” Nile asks. 

She’s not really expecting an answer, but Equally Hot Friend says, “She wanted to study us. Make us into lab rats.” Nile, a little hysterically, thinks, We don’t study rats , but even her completely overwhelmed nervous system knows better than to let that one escape. “She didn’t realize that she already had one of us.” He winks at Nile.

“Us?” Nile says. 

“Do we have to do this in the car?” the blond in the front seat asks. He sounds like that Agatha Christie detective that Nile’s mom is obsessed with, the one with the moustache.

“Shut the fuck up,” Hot Guy says, with a surprising amount of viciousness considering that he’d just been cradling Nile’s head in his lap. She jerks upright and pulls her knees up to her chin, trying not to kick Equally Hot Friend in the nuts as she does so. “What the fuck was that, back there? Were you really going to let them grab us?”

Poirot’s shoulders pull up to his ears. “I don’t know,” he says quietly, and then something else in a language that’s like French but full of marbles. 

“Oh, you’re tired ,” Hot Guy says in a sarcastic drawl. “Well, that’s fine, then.”

“You’re not?” Poirot demands. “You will gladly do this, forever?”

“It isn’t forever,” Equally Hot Friend says. 

“It might as well be,” Poirot says, with the same angsty inflection of Robert Pattinson’s finest Edward Cullen performance. Nile watches as Crown Hill Cemetery appears and disappears out of the window of the car. A sullen, simmering silence settles over everyone and Nile lifts a hand to her forehead. She feels sticky dampness under her fingertips but no wound from which it could have originated.

“Shot in the head?” she says, to no one in particular.

Professional Lesbian Haircut says, “Yes.” She adjusts her grip on the steering wheel and makes a low, hissing exhale, like she’s in pain. “You were hit by a car, two years ago, and you walked away completely unharmed. This shouldn’t surprise you.”

“How do you--?” Nile says, more alarmed now. “Wait, at the donut shop--were you watching me?”

“1997 Chrysler Cirrus, olive green,” Professional Lesbian Haircut says tightly. “Too much blood on the plate to make out the number. Screaming kid, scared teenager, suburban street with bungalows. It took us a long time to find you.”

“How long were you following me?” Nile asks Hot Guy.

“Two months,” he says. He adds, gently, “We didn’t know how to approach you at first.”

From Nile’s other side, Equally Hot Friend says, in a tone that makes it clear he thinks he’s clarifying Hot Guy’s point, “We’re forged in violence. We’ve never found another who wasn’t made in war.”

“And when we learned that you were working for that shitstain who’s been trying to capture us for the last six months--” Hot Guy says, furious for a few words and then trailing off. “It seemed better to observe.”

“I didn’t know,” Nile says and then she coughs into her closed fist. When she looks down at it, it’s covered in speckles of blood. “Should that still be happening?”

“You got run over after being shot in the head,” Equally Hot Friend says. “You’ll be fine in a little bit. It goes faster the more times you do it.”

“By which you mean-- die ?” Nile says.

Professional Lesbian Haircut abruptly turns the steering wheel and the whole car turns right so swiftly that there’s not even time for oncoming traffic to honk at her. She sails into the parking lot at Fisher Fish & Chicken and slams on the breaks. Nile has to brace herself on the back of Poirot’s seat so she doesn’t go sailing head-first through the front windshield.

“Clean her up, I’ll get some food,” Professional Lesbian Haircut says, turning around in her seat to fix her stark, cold gaze on Poirot and then Hot Guy and Equally Hot Friend in turn. She saves Nile for last. “Twenty minutes and then we’re back on the road. I want to be in Wisconsin by tonight.”

Nile says, “My thesis advisor is Dr. Evil and you want me to go to Wisconsin ?”

“Your thesis advisor is dead,” Professional Lesbian Haircut says. “And as of now, so are you.”

~

Nile is not really the kind of person who throws tantrums. She probably had, as a kid, but she doesn’t remember them and by the time her dad had died and left her mom with two kids and a mortgage, tantrums were a thing of the past. Even though Dani had moved in almost immediately to help around the house, sleeping in the guest room while she worked on her nursing degree, Nile had known that her mom needed all the help she could get and that it was time to step up.

Which isn’t to say that Nile doesn’t know how to throw a tantrum. She learned from the master, after all. Zee’s are a thing of beauty.

~

They hole up for the night in a Motel 6 in Lebanon. Nile learns everybody’s sad backstory over lukewarm containers from Fisher. Afterwards, Andy downs an entire bottle of vodka in about fifteen minutes and then, with a hilariously perplexed look on her face, crashes hard and has to be dragged over to one of the beds. “Guess her tolerance is dropping,” Booker says with some fondness as he pushes her hair out of her face. 

“You guys are a family, right?” Nile asks Joe, dipping a french fry into an open packet of mustard.

“Yes,” he says, watching his husband pick up the empty bottle of vodka and drop it into the recycling bin by the bathroom door.

“So it’s not that you don’t care about family, like, at all,” Nile says, biting off the tip of her french fry.

Joe watches her eat her cold fries for a few moments. “It’s been a long time since I had anything else,” he finally says. “It was a joy and an honor to find a new family long after my first one was lost to me. I remember so little of them, now. The scent of my mother’s hair will come to me, sometimes. But her face is gone.”

The cold fry she’s chewing tastes like styrofoam but Nile forces herself to swallow it. “I know that you guys are scared,” she says. “That pharma guy knows about you and you need to protect yourselves. I understand all of that.”

Nicky sighs and drops into a crouch next to Joe. He rests his chin on his husband’s head and then closes his eyes, like exhaustion has finally cut his strings. “But?” he prompts.

“I’m not leaving them,” Nile says. “No one knows about me, so there’s not a danger in it. It’s not that I don’t want to know any of you, or that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done. I do. I’m really, really glad it turns out I’m not going to be inadvertently torturing people for my PhD.”

Booker cracks the lid on another bottle of vodka and swallows two mouthfuls. “I think you should do it,” he says when he lowers it, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ll give you what you need--blood, tissue, whatever.”

Joe hisses something rude in Arabic. 

“Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen,” Nile says. 

“Someone should do it,” Booker says. He sounds brutally exhausted, which is weird because by all accounts he’s the youngest of them. “We’re walking around with eternal life in our veins.”

“I’m not gonna go down that road,” Nile says firmly. 

“What will you do?” Nicky asks her.

Nile says, “I’m gonna cry in my committee chair’s office until he agrees to supervise me and then I’ll figure out how to make muscle cells from fibroblasts and find some compounds that improve wound healing. Then I’m going to take my PhD and go back to medical school and one day if I open my own lab I’m going to study something completely unrelated to healing, like--like glaucoma. Or hypertension.”

Nile picks up her packet of mustard and very carefully concentrates on cleaning it out with a cold fry. “And then one day I guess I’ll fake my death and come find you guys. Hopefully you won’t make it too hard on me.”

“It’s not really faking,” Booker mumbles.

“Shut up,” Joe and Nicky say in unison.

“I’m going to have a thousand years to figure the rest of this out,” Nile tells them, conscious that her voice sounds very young, almost reedy. She swallows twice and reminds herself that being young doesn’t mean she’s stupid. “I only have something like fifty to spend with my family. Maybe I’ll regret it one day, but--I don’t know. I don’t want to be at the bottom of the ocean, wishing I could’ve been there when Zee graduated from high school.”

Booker finishes his bottle of vodka and falls asleep in the chair next to the front window, face drawn into long, sad lines. Joe and Nicky curl up together on the bed closer to the door and fall asleep like a pair of spoons, knives tucked up under their pillows. Nile nudges Andy with her knees until there’s enough space on the bed for Nile to lay on her side, cuddling a pillow to her chest. She falls asleep listening to all of them breathe, like the steady rumble of a plane taking off.

It reminds her of the first few months after Zee was born, when Nile had decided to go to college and defer her decision about enlisting and accordingly had a whole summer free that was previously supposed to be occupied by boot camp. She’d stayed in Indianapolis with Dani and Ron, sleeping in their guest room and helping watch Zee when they ran out of leave and had to go back to work. Zee had snored like a freight train. Nile had found herself more than once curling up on the rug next to Zee's crib, listening to her little rumbling snores, feeling like finally something in her had snapped back into place.

~

Nile wakes up the next morning to an empty room. Her backpack, which she’d forgotten in lab yesterday during the whole running for her life from armed assailants thing, is sitting in the chair where Booker had fallen asleep last night, her car keys tucked into the front pocket. When she looks out of the window into the parking lot, her car is waiting for her. There’s a note on the table, folded in half with NILE written on it. Security footage had to be dealt with anyway , it says, in handwriting so beautiful that it looks like a font. Try to act surprised when it turns out there was a freak accident at the university yesterday.

And then, in chicken scratch at the bottom: Burn this, obviously. We’ll be in touch .