It’s never been easy working in the same place where Mom died. The university’s sprawling campus occupied most of the peninsula, and the hospital sat at its edge. The medical school annually stamped out young doctors and nurses, and the hospital kept the research facility well-stocked with human suffering and corpses. All in all, it was a fair trade and not all that atypical. From the study of death comes the hope of life.
Mom didn’t like being a doctor, but she loved research. I always liked solving puzzles and riddles growing up; the shared thirst for truth kept us together despite her long hours in the lab. Without many friends, I spent a lot of time by myself. As an adult, I still do.
When she died, I stayed in the old house; there was little reason to do otherwise. My father came home from out west and helped with the arrangements. They’d been divorced for years, but it was easy to tell he still cared. It was Mom’s focus on her research that drove them apart. Dad and I had dinner before he went back. He said I looked like her.
I woke this morning thinking about her as I have every morning for the last five years. The floors were cold as I banked the furnace and got ready to leave. I grabbed my keys and dashed out the door to the university library. I’d applied for a research fellowship and looked forward to some time away from the ER. Boning up on a few periodicals of current works couldn’t hurt; the interviews would be brutal.
A sense of time was not something I was blessed with possessing. The librarian was annoyed that she’d have a patron so early on a Sunday morning. I showed her my badge, smiled at her and headed to the basement cages, swipe card in hand.
The reading room had a comfortable oversized leather chair with the warm light of a pole lamp behind it. I curled up and tucked my cold feet under my jacket and started going through the stack of journals and papers. Much of it was bland reading, resplendent with medical jargon, numbers and detail.
My mind kept trying to stitch a theme and thread through the pieces. Why did I choose these? They were all about cancer research, as expected, but nearly all the research referenced a single study. All I had was a research identification number, 1982-043, and a single note of ‘Protocol Sierra’. I was born in ‘84 so it was likely that Mom worked on this just before she got pregnant.
I returned the materials and headed back upstairs to the librarian’s desk to ask her about the missing materials from 1982. She looked at me funny and told me that the research was destroyed in the fire, the lab fire where Mom died. I asked her how she knew who I was. She said the family resemblance was uncanny.
The drive home had my head spinning so I took a walk through the park, soaking in the harbor air amid the tall evergreens. What was Mom doing with all that old research on the night she died? What the Hell was Protocol Sierra? Why did the current research all tie back to Mom’s work?
When I returned, I found a fair-sized package on my doorstep wrapped in brown paper, tied with jute. It looked like it’d been kept somewhere for a while. There was a note taped to the top from the librarian. ‘This is what you’re looking for,’ it read.
I took the heavy box inside, placed it on the kitchen table and turned the kettle on. The chill was settling in my bones and I was shaking. I was pretty sure I was coming down with something. Carefully unwrapping the package, the faint smell of aged paper filled the air. It was a stack of hard-bound lab notebooks, each titled ‘Sierra’ and dated; thirty journals from late-1982 to mid-2002 when the fire happened.
There was an envelope tucked in the box. It had my name on it in my mother’s handwriting. The letter inside was hurriedly written. I started reading as the kettle’s whistle blared.
‘Sierra, this is your life. I’m sorry.’
The walk to the science building took longer than usual. Between my deepening cold and Mom’s research, I slept terribly. I wrapped my fingers around the cappuccino cup and prayed for the feeling to creep back in my fingers.
The interview was today. I’d known everyone on the panel since I was a kid when my mother took me with her to work. The doctors and professors were like family to me. I had no other. It was just me and Mom.
Gladstone, Mareset and Peters waited for me upstairs, but I didn’t want to go. Not now. They were on Mom’s project at the time of the accident. Seeing their names peppered through those thirty-year-old journals gave me pause.
Sierra, this is your life.
My name is Elizabeth Franklin. Sierra is my middle name. No one called me that but Mom. It was a secret name. Something between her and I. The rest of the world knew me as Beth.
A pair of hands snaked under my arms from behind and squeezed gently. He always smelled like cinnamon. Instantly, I felt warmer and smiled.
“Good morning,” he said and kissed my neck. “Ready for your dog-and-pony show?”
I turned around and punched him playfully in the shoulder. “That’s not nice.”
“You’re late, you know.”
I nodded and raised my paper cup. “I didn’t sleep well. I need the boost. I got a chill, that’s all.”
He gave me another hug. “Gotta run. Macroeconomics awaits. You contagious?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good,” he said and kissed me deeply. “Knock ‘em dead.”
I watched him leave, feeling better, but still troubled. Why didn’t I tell him about the journals? We’ve dated on and off for years and we’re finally getting somewhere. Still…
“Beth,” came a voice above me, loud and ringing. The atrium’s three stories made every pin drop a bell chime.
I looked up. “Doctor Peters, I’m sorry I’m late.”
He waved me off. “Never mind. Those other two fools went on the hunt for some Cantonese. We got time. Come on up. I want to show you something.”
Intrigued, I ascended the stairs. Doctor Peters, Uncle Enos to me, always had something neat to show me. He was an experimental geneticist like Mom and they spent a lot of time together. I often wondered if they were more than colleagues. Maybe I could ask him about the project journals.
For some reason, I kept thinking the project as outside of me, that there was some other Sierra. I bit my lower lip as I followed him inside his lab.
He closed the door and threw the controlled access seal. With several million dollars worth of equipment, security was paramount— especially since the lab accident.
I walked across the lab to the clean room and tapped on the observation mirror. It looked empty but the specimen light was on. Normally, I expected to see human analog pigs or even primates. There was no trappings of occupation either. No feeding trough, no interactivity test objects. Nothing.
“Did Wendy send you the package?” he asked as he came along side me and peered through the glass.
“Wendy? You mean the librarian? Yeah, I got a package. That was from you?”
“Did you read the journals?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“So, you know why you’re here then.”
TO BE CONTINUED…