Lead the Way

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt

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Lead the Way

Allie Weiss

I stumble into my apartment with bleary eyes and someone else’s cigarette smoke in my hair. All I want now is an Aspirin, a hot bath, and a one-eyed ferret named Accordion. 

               Unfortunately, my monocular roommate is nowhere to be found. After checking his usual haunts – the laundry basket, the kitchen sink, and the 10,000-milliliter beaker I keep for emergencies – I deduce that he must be off plotting his revenge for my long absence today. 

               As I sink into the hot bathwater, the thumb drive around my neck feels like a boulder. I lift it between my fingers and study its metallic ridges. It seems impossible that this small piece of plastic and aluminum could save lives next year; yet it is the reason I lost everything.

               A distant ticking captures my thoughts. I glance at the clock across the room. Seven p.m. It’s time. My pulse begins to race; my palms are slick with steam and sweat. The edges of my vision blur and darken. 

               “Breathe, Libby.”

               The voice drifts toward me across the years, as familiar to me as my own heartbeat.

               “Just breathe.” 

               I roll over, gasping. Curious eyes meet mine, scanning my face for anomalies. I’m lying on Cannon Beach, my lungs protesting my ten-foot drop onto the sand. His attention never strays from my face.  

               With a groan, I push myself up onto my elbows. “Where did you come from?” I ask. 

               “Me? You’re the one who just fell from the sky.”

               I snort. “I fell from a rock, not the sky.”

               “What were you doing?” he asks, helping me sit up the rest of the way. I am momentarily distracted by the way his sandy brown curls fall over his brow. I push them back, revealing the freckles above his eyelids. 

               “I saw a puffin making its nest on top of the rocks. I wanted to see what it looked like.”

               He smirks at me, and for a moment he looks older than his ten years. “You already know what a puffin nest looks like.”

               “I don’t know what this one looks like. I fell before I could get to the top.”

               His grin fades. “You’re not going to try again, are you?” I wonder if I’m imagining the note of worry in his voice. 

               I jump up and brush the sand off my legs, striking out toward the immense stone jutting up from the sand. “I certainly am.” 

               “Libby, it’s too slippery. You’re being crazy!”

               “Only crazy people can do the impossible,” I call back over my shoulder.  As I walk, I wait to hear his footsteps behind me. After a few steps I stop and turn around, finding him standing exactly where he’d been before. “Aren’t you coming?”

               He sighs and shoves his hands in his pockets. But he takes a step forward. “Lead the way.”

               A cold nose prods my elbow. I open my eyes, and the memory disappears into the humid air. Accordion is staring up at me with an angry expression on his furry face. 

               “Hi buddy,” I whisper, leaning down to scratch his flat ears. “Sorry I was MIA today. I had some work to do.” 

               He butts his head against my palm, making a final show of discontent, before jumping up onto the edge of the bathtub and snuggling in behind my shoulders. 

Before I can talk myself out of it, I reach for my cellphone. I dial the number for Charlie Feliciano – one of my former research partners. I suspect that he has been instructed not to talk to me.  This suspicion is confirmed when the call goes straight to voicemail.

               “Charlie, it’s Libby.” My voice shakes, and I clear my throat. “I know this is probably inappropriate, but I could really use a sounding board right now. I—I have the formula, Charlie. I kept a copy on a thumb drive when I left. I’ve been shopping it around, and I found a buyer. I’m….” 

               I take a deep breath.

               “I’m scared, Charlie. They’ve already started a pilot study. It’s only a matter of time now before he finds out.” 


               “Hey, Einstein!”

               The angry voice snaps me out of my thoughts. “Yes?” I ask.

               “You just passed my stop,” my fare growls from the backseat. I slam on the breaks, jolting him forward into the seat in front of him. 

               “Sorry!” I cry. “I’m sorry. Is here good?”

               He mutters something that I can’t quite make out – though I doubt it’s a glowing review of my driving – and slams the door as he exits. 

               “Be sure to give me five stars,” I mumble, though he’s already halfway down the block. I ease back into traffic, waiting for my phone to ding with my next trip. 

               I make my way to the Loop, and circle City Hall a few times before my app alerts me of a new fare.

Turning the corner, I see two men standing on LaSalle, though their faces are difficult to see in the dark.  The first man gets in the back seat and shuts the door. Only then does my phone alert me of the destination – some place in southern Wisconsin. “Sir, is this address corr—”

               “Hello Libby.” 

               My veins run cold. That voice has echoed through my nightmares for the past six months. “Mr. Graveman,” I say, feeling my heartbeat begin to race. 

               The second passenger slides into the backseat, and I can vaguely make out his face in my rearview mirror. “Charlie?”

               “Libby,” he replies. His voice is cold and granite – as though he were merely a distant acquaintance.  

               “What are you—”

               “You left me a voicemail. You said you wanted to talk.”

               “I meant like at a Starbucks or something,” I say, trying to stem the panic welling up inside of me. “What are you doing? And why are you two together?”

               “Start driving,” Graveman says. 

               “N-no,” I stammer. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”  

               That’s when I hear a click next to my ear. It’s a sound that I’ve only ever heard in movies, and at first I have trouble registering what it means. Then I feel the cool, circular press of a barrel against my neck. “Drive,” he says again.                 

               My hands shake as I grip the wheel. I merge slowly into traffic, forcing myself to process traffic signals as I drive through the city.  

                “I hear you’ve been busy,” Graveman says. His gun has not left my skin. “You’ve found a buyer, have you?”

               “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I murmur.

               “Don’t lie,” he snaps. “My patience with you is wearing dangerously thin.” 

               I release a shaky exhale.  Just then, I notice my purse begin to move. 

               “Who is it?” he asks.

               My focus splits between my newly-mobile bag and the man with a pistol to my skull. “Who is what?”

               “Your buyer,” Graveman growls. I glance at him in the rearview. Charlie is next to him, wearing a stony expression. 

               “You’re working with him?” I ask. They both know I’m not talking to Graveman.

               Charlie shrugs. “He promised me my own lab, Libs.”  

               “We built that formula together, Charlie. We were going to save people’s lives!”

               “You were going to destroy a two-billion-dollar industry,” Graveman says. 

               “We put everything we had into that drug,” I insist. “All of our weekends, all of our evenings  – fifty thousand people are going to die this year from the flu, and we can stop it. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

               “You know what matters? My reputation. My career.” Charlie is nearly snarling at me now. “You nearly cost me everything, and you want me to feel guilty?”

                His tone chills me. This is not the same man that I’ve spent the past eight years working beside. That man was dedicated to helping people. He picked me up off the lab floor when I fell asleep after forty-eight-hour shifts. He encouraged me after every failure, every dead end. He shared a bottle of champagne with me when, finally, we determined the exact formula that could combat every strain of influenza. We were going to save millions of lives together.

               And then, suddenly, we weren’t.  

               I make a right on Washington Street. Thankfully, Graveman doesn’t object.

               “You see, Libby, Charlie here understands that certain things are more important than a noble cause. Your little experiment was going to destroy my bottom line.”

               “You would have made millions on our drug,” I mutter. I’m not exactly in a position to argue with this man; yet I am beginning to feel the past six months’ worth of anger bubble up beneath my ribs.  

               My purse kicks out again. I have a sneaking suspicion as to what that means. 

               “And it would have cost us billions!” Graveman shouts. “Do you know how lucrative the flu industry is? Vaccines, vapor rubs, decongestants, sleep aids – we have upwards of thirty products on the market right now to combat flu symptoms. If a cure were to suddenly become available, all of that would disappear.”

               “So you falsified my research,” I say. “You lied to your stockholders.” 

               “Like they’re complaining,” he scoffs. “The cost per share would have plummeted to a fraction of what it is now. I did them a favor.”

               “You are killing people!”

               “People have been dying from the flu for centuries. It’s not news.”

               “But they don’t have to anymore,” I say. 

               “They do if I say so,” Graveman growls, pushing the barrel further into my neck. “Now tell me – who is your buyer? How far have they gotten?”

               I glance up at my friend. “Charlie?” I whisper.  

               “You’ve made your own bed, Libby. He warned us what would happen if either of us went public. You were the one who chose to tell your friend at the Tribune that MedTech was sitting on a cure to the flu,” Charlie says tonelessly.   

               “He didn’t say he would kill us!” I spit. My gaze shifts to Graveman’s in the rearview mirror. His beady black eyes stare back at me. It strikes me that they are empty, cold – as though there is no soul behind them. “Please. You’ve already cost me my job, my privacy…. You told the media that I was trying to put a fatal drug on the market.  I had to sell my house to get away from the reporters. I can’t get a job in a lab anywhere in this country. Haven’t you hurt me enough?”

               “Not if you’re still a threat to this company,” he snarls. “Now, for the last time—” I hear another click, and it occurs to me that he does not intend to let me leave this car alive. “Tell me who your buyer is.” 

                Just then, my purse tips over, and Accordion rolls out into the footwell. I realize that he must have snuck into my bag before I left. 

               At the same time, I make a hard right turn into DuSable Harbor, and the sky illuminates with red and blue lights.  

               “Out of the car!” someone yells over a bullhorn. At least twenty SUVs and squad cars – both FBI and CPD – form an immediate circle around us. 

               Graveman is stunned into silence for half a moment, and his arm drops a few degrees. For an instant, I feel a swell of relief. We made it. We made it. 

Then I can feel the atmosphere change as his entire being fills with fury. “You stupid bitch!” he bellows, and his arm lifts again. 

As he moves to pull the trigger, Accordion leaps between the seats and latches onto Graveman’s arm with his teeth. At the same time, Charlie dives between Graveman and me, and circles my shoulders with his arms. Graveman shrieks, and the shot goes wide by a matter of inches. The driver’s side door opens, and I am yanked out onto the concrete, and pushed down onto my stomach.

“Stay down, Dr. Madison!” a gentleman wearing an FBI jacket shouts.  I tip my head up, the cracked cement cold beneath my chin. Perhaps it’s shock, but in that moment, the ring of headlights looks to me like the sun rising over Cannon Beach. And in that moment, I can breathe again.   


               The anchorman’s voice is nasal and abrasive, but I can’t draw my attention away. “—was found guilty this afternoon of two counts of attempted murder, as well as engaging in several practices intended to defraud investors. Mr. Graveman was the CEO of MedTech Industries until six months ago, when he was arrested during an FBI sting operation. Meanwhile, MedTech is in the final stages of acquiring FDA approval for what sources are calling a ‘cure for the flu.’ Despite the company’s connection with Stuart Graveman, stocks have been soaring in the last three weeks.” 

               “Dr. Madison?” 

               I pull my focus away from the small television. “Yes?”

               “Your order is ready.” 

               Across the bar, a brown paper bag bears my name. I lift it into my arms and thank the waitress with a smile.  Glancing inside the bag, I make sure that the kitchen included extra lettuce for Accordion. He will likely scratch a new hole in the walls if he doesn’t get a treat tonight. 

               I push through the door of the sleepy oceanfront restaurant, and pause as a wave of salty air washes over me. It’s filled with memories and comfort and home.

               “I thought you’d be here.”

               I open my eyes, and freeze. Charlie is standing in front of me, smirking.  

               “How did you find me?” I ask.

               He nods his head toward the building behind me. “You never could stay away from this place for long.” I wonder if he is referring to the restaurant or the beach. 

               My eyes catch on the red welt climbing above the collar of his shirt, where a bullet meant for me had torn its way through his shoulder. I take a step closer, and meet his familiar gaze. His hair has grown out in the past six months due to his extended stay in the hospital. Reaching up with my free hand, I push the curls off of his brow, revealing the freckles above his eyelids. 

               “Did you hear?” I whisper. 

               He grins. “Guilty on all counts.” 

               “We did it.” Even after all these months – after endless days of testimony – it doesn’t feel real. 

               His familiar, curious gaze meets mine, and I’m transported back to that day all those years ago when we’d finally made it to the top of the rock. “We did it.” 

               I take a deep breath, and let go. “Ready to go home?”

               He takes my hand and draws me close. 

“Lead the way.”

March 14, 2022 00:11

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1 comment

Michał Przywara
21:38 Mar 19, 2022

Great story! And a terrifyingly possible scenario :)


Show 0 replies
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