Walter tugged at the man’s brain. It made a squelchy sound, like someone walking through mud in rain boots.
“That creeps me out,” Astrid said. She had already admonished him for being elbow deep in cadavers when his presence at the reading of the will was imminent. He would hear none of it, and had proceeded to wrap his fingers around the man’s brain.
“I find it oddly comforting,” Walter replied as he extricated the brain from it’s skull with a final squish.
“Your tie. It has a little bit of brain on it.” Astrid said and furrowed her brow in disgust. She made for his tie with a piece of paper towel. Before she could wipe it off for him, he raised his tie to his face. He sniffed at the crimson smear, and then put his lips over it. His tongue licked it while Astrid shuddered.
“It’s raspberry jam.” He said, smiling as the sweetness met his taste buds. A blob of jam must have dripped from his donut that morning onto the blue silk of his tie. He was not accustomed to wearing ties, but he felt this occasion called for a certain level of decorum. As the jelly dissolved in his mouth, he felt a wave of apprehension pass through his gut. He looked at his young assistant whose hand was still poised above his tie, ready to tidy him up. She reached up and smoothed his collar, her hands lingering on his shoulders in a little gesture of comfort.
“Walter, “ Peter said entering the lab. “Time to go.”
“Can you give us just a minute?” Astrid asked. She dabbed at Walter’s tie, trying to erase his sloppy eating habits completely. She was good to him. He sighed, attempting to release the tension rollicking through his stomach. Sometimes, he thought, she was too good to him.
“Maybe I should change anyway,” Walter said, his voice quivering with hesitation. “I’m a bit overdressed.”
“Walter you look fine.” She gripped his arms, steadying him.
“No. I don’t think I can do this,” he said and leaned in to Astrid. He inhaled and recognized her familiar scent. She smelled like a cream puff, a mixture of sweet, soft vanilla with maybe a hint of almond or maraschino cherry. He thought for a moment to tell her she was more than he deserved, that she was too good to him, that he had cherished every moment they spent together over cadavers and bunsen burners, that her gentle scent brought him such tranquility. He wanted to tell her everything as though he were a man about to go off to war or march to his execution.
But he found there were no words, or at least no words that he could force from between his clenched jaw.
“Walter, it’s going to be okay. You look lovely.” Astrid said, her voice steady and quiet. He thought to lean in and peck his lips against her cheek. He almost licked his lips as he admired her youthful complexion, moist and warm like a creamy cup of mocha. But he could never do such a thing, could never cross such a bold and firm line. She was half his age and far more beautiful than any other woman he’d ever dreamed of being with.
His heart twisted in palpitations beneath his chest. He wanted to ask her, “Wouldn’t you come with me, Artemis? I’m always so peaceful whenever you are near.”
But instead he simply nodded his head once and said, “Thank you, my dear.”
He turned and left the lab with Peter.
As they drove the four hours to New York City, he leaned back in the passenger seat of the station wagon and closed his eyes.
“Maybe if Bell left you anything, you can get rid of this clunker and buy yourself some sweet wheels, Walter,” his son said in a voice full of cheer. “Imagine all the ladies you’d attract as you drove through campus in a convertible Mustang.”
“Perhaps, Son,” Walter muttered and tried to regulate his breath. He patted the pockets of his suit jacket and realized he’d left the little envelope of homemade pharmaceuticals on his desk at the lab.
“Is something wrong, Walter?” Peter asked him.
“No, of course not,” Walter answered. He realized that once again he was lying to his son. A life full of lies. A whole city of omission and mistruth, built on a landscape of deceit. He closed his eyes against it all and tried to conjure up the smell of his young assistant. If only they were animals and he could have rubbed against her, saturated himself with her scent.
Sometimes it was different.
Sometimes she wore a perfume full of blackberries and amber. He remembered the first time she wore it, when they were inspecting that porcupine man. He’d felt terribly confused as he inhaled the exotic waft of her, thinking for sure the beast’s pheromones were having a wild and intoxicating effect on him. Then he realized it was simply Ashcat, standing close to him, and emitting a fragrance so erotic he’d had to excuse himself for a moment to calm his nerves in the bathroom.
“Did you say something?” Peter asked.
“What? No. Nothing,” Walter said and realized he must have been whispering her name out loud. “Um, actually, Son, I am feeling a bit peckish. There is a bakery over here. I could go for a creampuff or blackberry bear claw.”
“Didn’t Astrid feed you this morning?”
“Well of course she did,” Walter griped. “But you know how these formal events make me nervous. And by nervous, I mean hungry.”
Peter sighed, but he steered the station wagon in the direction in which Walter was wagging his finger.
Her hand encircled his bicep.
Rather, her hand encircled part of his bicep. Her hand was too small to encircle his entire bicep. He glanced down at her fine fingers, and then back up at her face. There was a lot going on in the upper part of her face. Her eyes. Pupils dilated. Concern. Forehead wrinkled. Eyebrows arching and slanting in toward the bridge of her nose.
It overwhelmed him so he looked down at her lips.
But then he imagined that those succulent lips would taste of berries and other wild pleasures, so he looked back up to her eyes.
How he longed to slip his fingers in those fine little wrinkles, ride them, erase them. His fingers were not worthy.
He shook his head to regain his composure.
He handed the piece of paper and the key to Astrid. His fingers quivered, but her’s were steady. She opened it and read, “Don’t be afraid to cross the line.”
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly know how far they can go. Belly used to say that.” Walter said, his voice a dirge to his deceased friend. Then he grew angry and impatient. “How can he tell me to cross the line?”
Astrid urged Walter to talk to Peter. “He has got to hear your side of the story.” Her eyes regarded him pleadingly. She didn’t know. She didn’t understand. But how could she?
How could she know he had been compulsively eating cream puffs for the last six hours simply because he had not been close to her?
How could she know he had been chewing licorice in every spare moment simply because he couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t lunge at her and try to devour his lips with his own?
No one took him seriously.
No one guessed that he was still a fully functional man with all the urges and impulses of any other. No one would have considered for even a moment that he could have fallen deeply in lust or love with a beautiful woman, that his dick twitched and responded with a tumescent excitement just like any other man at the sight of her thick curls and glossy skin.
Astrid thought that the line of which he spoke was in regard to Peter. She could not have been more wrong, but he could not tell her.
He watched her lips move, as she urged him to talk to his son. He watched her lips but the sound of her voice became white noise, ocean waves, wind across a field of tall grass, as she spoke to him.
What he really wanted was to see her lips moving in a request to him to take her in his arms and hold her. Just hold her. Tuck her head under his chin and cradle her to him for an hour or eternity.
He thought of the miles of scorched earth from Over There, of the walls of amber that had been detonated because of his meandering back and forth across the line.
“I no longer believe lines are meant to be crossed, Agent Farnsworth,” he said.
“Walter,” Astrid said in the most delicate voice he’d ever heard. “Science is all about crossing lines. What you’ve done in the name of science is important. You might just save the world one day with one of your discoveries or inventions. You’re feeling glum. It’s normal. Your good friend has died and you are going through the loss. But I know what will make you feel better,” she purred, stroking his cable knit arm.
“I don’t think you could possibly know,” Walter began, bitterly.
“Then should I simply throw out all of the fixings I got to make peanut butter cup sundaes?” Astrid teased, running her thin fingers up and down his arm. He silently cursed the thick material of his cardigan, wishing he could feel the warmth of her little hand closer to his skin.
Or maybe her fingers would be cool and comforting. He couldn’t help himself, he grabbed her hand in his and raised it quickly to his lips.
Cool. Her fingers were delightfully cool against the heat of his lips.
“You mustn’t do that,” he said, his voice gruff with desire that he hoped passed for hunger. “You mustn’t throw away all the sundae supplies. Truth be told, I could go for a bite.”
Astrid looked up at him demurely from beneath the ebony fringe of her lashes. “Would you like vanilla ice cream or chocolate? I got both.”
“Could I have a scoop of each, my dear?”
“Of course, Walter. I’ll go get it now.”
He walked down the hall to apartment 204. He knocked lightly, almost hoping she wouldn’t hear. She answered looking lovely in a black, silk shirt, gold earrings bobbing against her jawbone.
“Walter,” she greeted him with a smile that was at once surprised, but welcoming.
“I know what Belly left me,” he said mournfully and her face fell. He produced a thick white envelope from inside his shirt. “He left me Massive Dynamic. I’m the sole shareholder.”
“Hey,” she said in the tone she used when trying to soothe Walter. She saw the fear and anxiety that had settled around his eyes. “Come in. Let’s sit down and talk about this.”
“I don’t know if I should.”
“Don’t be silly. Come in. Ignore the mess, but come in and sit down. I’ll make you a cup of tea. Or would you prefer some root beer?”
“Actually, my dear, I could use a nip of something a bit stronger, if I am to be honest.”
“I think all I have in that department is wine,” she said and crinkled her nose in the way she did when she was proposing a question.
“Ah. That will be fine,” Walter said. He stepped into Astrid’s living room as she slipped back into the kitchen to fetch the wine. He had never before been in her apartment. He took it in, wondering where was the mess of which she had spoken. There was a plum colored cardigan draped over a comfortable looking armchair, and a pair of shoes that looked as though they had been absently slipped off. Other than that, the apartment was neat as a pin and quite feminine. Walter considered it to be like looking at the inside of a delicate and lovely shell where his beautiful bird resided.
He stood in a haze of fascination and awkward tension. His eyes finally settled on a blanket that was thrown over an arm of the sofa. It was beige and looked incredibly soft, cashmere perhaps.
Astrid returned with a bottle and a couple of glasses.
“I hope red is okay,” she said. She set the glasses on the coffee table and poured some wine into both of them. Walter lifted his immediately and drained it. Astrid shrugged and poured him some more. He lifted the second glass to his lips and sipped.
“Oh, how rude of me,” he said breathlessly. “I should have waited for you and proposed a toast.”
“No worries,” Astrid giggled and held up her glass. “How about we toast to your new business?” Walter nodded and they clinked glasses. Suddenly, he remembered he was still wearing his cap and he took it off. He held it in the quivering fingers of the hand that was not holding his wine and ducked his head, smiling sheepishly at Astrid. “Would you like to take your coat off and sit for a while?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” he said. The wine was warm in his stomach and radiating a relaxing glow. He felt like a boy sitting before a fire, growing comfortable and sleepy. He handed his coat to Astrid, which she took and hung on a hook by the door. They sat down on the couch and resumed the sipping of wine.
“Are you okay?” Astrid asked and put her hand on his wrist. Her fingers stroked his skin. He angled his knees toward her, and took her hand in his own.
“I’m fine,” he began. “Actually. I’m a little in shock. But there is something I would like to toast to.”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about what you said in the lab earlier this afternoon, and I would like to toast to crossing the line.”
“Here, here!” Astrid cheered and they clinked glasses once again. Walter gulped down the last of his wne. He set the glass on the coffee table. He took Astrid’s glass and drank the rest of her wine and then set her glass next to his own. He then took her two hands in his own and looked at her. He took a deep breath.
“There is a line, Agent Farnsworth, that I should very much like to cross.”
“What is it, Walter?”
His trembling fingers reached up to cup her face. He ran his thumb over her cheek as gently as he knew how, then let his hand slip down to her neck. He tenderly pulled her face toward him as he lowered his own face to her, incrementally, until his lips came to touch hers. And although he was terrified and shaking, the sensation of her soft, warm lips beneath his gave him the courage he needed to increase the pressure of the kiss. Her lips parted and their open mouths blended against one another, tasting of wine.
It was the first time he had kissed a woman in almost two decades. And he never wanted it to end. He wanted to live forever in the sweet, soft little pocket of her mouth, with his tongue brushing up against the silkiness of the inside of her cheek. But the kiss did end because they both realized neither of them were breathing.
When they parted, Astrid’s fingers came up to her mouth and she looked surprised, shocked even.
“Forgive my impetuousness, my dear,” Walter mumbled and looked down, to where he had folded his hands over his aching crotch.
She reached out and put her hand on top of his. “There’s nothing to forgive,” she whispered. “It was a lovely kiss.”
“Would you ever like for such a kiss to happen again?”
“Maybe. Perhaps. Yes. I think I would.” She nodded, and the way her curls bounced delighted Walter as though he were a boy at Christmas.
“Oh, my dear, that makes me impossibly happy,” Walter gasped and smiled. He looked up at her and then to the side and the back down, feeling excited and pleased and not quite sure where to focus his gaze. “I’m a wealthy man, now, Astrid,” Walter began.
“I suppose you are,” she sighed.
“I have resources and power beyond anything I ever imagined. I have countless laboratories with the most sophisticated equipment. I have airplanes and helicopters and access to just about anything in the world I could possibly want. I realized this today when I opened the safe deposit box and found this packet of stocks. I thought of all the things I could do, the places I could go, the people I could meet and impress. And yet, all I could really imagine doing was taking you out for supper. I’m a wealthy man now. I may be old and a little insane on most days. But I could give you anything, my dear, anything your heart desires.”
“Walter, you don’t have to give me anything,” she said. “I care about you because of who you are, and I always have. Well except that one time you drugged me. That was not nice, and I hope you will never do that again. But I have grown to care about you, for you. There is nothing I want from you other than your company.”
“So, will you have supper with me?”
“Yes, Walter. I would love to have supper with you.”
“Good. Good.” He chanted. He was smiling and practically bouncing on the couch cushion. Astrid patted his hand. Then she reached out her arms and embraced him. His arms wrapped around her, and he tucked her head under his chin. Her cheek rested on his chest and she could hear his heartbeat.
And they stayed like that for quite some time.