Alice pressed her fork down on her steak. The soft meat leaked a pool of blood that spread over her white plate. It soaked into the potatoes and broccoli.
A slow heave lifted in her throat, and she gulped several times to combat the excess saliva that gushed into her mouth. She could almost taste the metallic tang of blood. “How was the–” another heave rose up and she cleared it with a cough that echoed through the sparse room. She tried again. “How was the lab today, John?”
A thick frown furrowed John’s brow. This was his usual response to most questions. Everything was an irritation. Such banal conversations couldn’t hold a flame to his vast intellect. He ejected the word as if giving a reply was below him. “Stressful.”
The rejection sent a sharp stab through Alice’s stomach. It didn’t matter how many times he knocked her down, she got back up and continued to look for his approval. Fire spread beneath her cheeks and she chewed on her bottom lip.
John flashed a grin of wonky teeth. It took all of Alice’s strength not to flinch at the ghastly sight. “I must say though, it’s been made a little easier by Wilfred having to make me this meal.”
A deep breath filled Alice’s sinuses with the smell of disinfectant; the smell she associated with John. Decades immersed in the study of bacteria and disease had driven his level of cleanliness to the point where it bordered on obsessive-compulsive. A frown darkened her view of the room. “What did you say the bet was?”
Alice looked into his sharp blue eyes and waited for him to say more.
A look first at the man, dressed in his white lab coat, she then looked around at his white, minimalist penthouse apartment. Everything had a place, and everything was necessary. Beakers and test tubes littered the sides like ornaments. She hadn’t ever seen a photograph on display, despite this being his personal space… no room for sentimentality here.
Alice squirmed in her seat as the silence swelled.
John watched her.
No matter how long she’d known the man for, John always made her itch in her own skin. As if pressured to break the overwhelming void between them, she said, “So, what was the bet about?”
“An experiment. I predicted the correct result.”
A machine would have been better company. Alice frowned at him again and sighed.
“Oh, do pull yourself together, woman,” John said. “You’ve got to learn to stop being so bloody sensitive.”
Despite his obnoxious behaviour, the man did have redeeming qualities. When he worked, his creativity and passion flowed from him. Science drove him like a heartbeat, but Alice couldn’t excuse him time and again. She couldn’t ignore every time he’d humiliated her during a lecture; every time he’d not let her finish her point; every time he’d selected her to clean the lab at the end of the day while he let his other students leave. “How about you learn to stop being so bloody insensitive?”
A flick of his bony hand at her and he said, “This is what I mean. It’s these emotional fluctuations that take away your ability to be objective. That’s why men make better scientists.”
“And terrible companions.”
He lowered his head and peered over his glasses at her. “We can leave our baggage at the door,” he continued.
For the second time, her face smouldered. “You left your baggage in the delivery ward, John. Maybe your sociopathic detachment serves you well in the world of science, but it doesn’t equip you to deal with the real world. Without science, you’d be stranded.” Her vision blurred. Great! Tears again. They only strengthened the man’s argument.
John sighed and shook his head.
A glance down at her dinner, and Alice prodded the soft steak. Maybe a scalpel would be more appropriate than the wooden-handled knife in her hand. In the bright glare of John’s scrutiny, Alice cut into the steak and lifted a piece to her mouth.
The soft meat sat like jelly on her tongue. Unable to chew it, she took a deep gulp and tried to swallow. The piece of steak stuck in her throat like it was barbed. Her heart raced as a metallic rush of juices slithered down her oesophagus and clogged her throat.
John watched on, his expression unchanged. The cold detachment of a scientist rather than the compassion of a human being stared through his beady eyes.
Alice’s pulse boomed inside her skull. She held her neck and wheezed, “Help me.”
He didn’t. He believed in natural selection. Sink or swim. How many cavemen had choked on their dinner? The ones who had been saved only weakened the gene pool. Weakness should never be rewarded.
After several heavy gulps, Alice swallowed the meat, leaned on the table, and gasped. Adrenaline surged through her. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand to stop her mascara from running and looked up to see John watching her with his usual blank expression. A barrage of abuse rose and died on her tongue; there was no point.
Alice retuned her focus to her dinner and flinched every time her cutlery hit the porcelain plate. The sharp chinks bounced around the quiet room. After she’d cut everything up, she stared at her food. A tightness remained in her throat from when she’d choked; another sip of warm red wine did little to ease her trepidation.
When she looked back up, John still watched her.
She cleared her throat. “So, when will you tell me about your work, John?”
His dinner remained untouched; his scrawny frame and pallid skin served as a visual representation of his poor diet. Thirty years her senior at sixty-three, he looked fifty years older. He consulted his wristwatch as if their meal had a deadline and sighed. “I can’t. You know that.”