art by Jonathan Westbrook
A Hole in Time
by Amy Greschaw
"Happy Birthday, Elspeth!"
She's just come back to her office to drop off a stack of papers to grade, and Luisa's greeting has interrupted her departure. Right away, the words are wrong: the "happy" and the "birthday" too cheerful, and the name too formal. Everyone calls her Elle, and Luisa of all people should know that this is a birthday she is loath to acknowledge. As far as Elle is concerned, all important people achieve success before they turn 30, and one year closer to her deadline is nothing to celebrate.
Still, she smiles over her sigh, and thanks her lab-mate for the well wishes. Even though they don't have much in common, Luisa has always been very sweet--if a little tiresome at times with her relentless overtures of friendship. With the week that Elle's had, losing months of work on a rejected grant proposal, she's just not in the mood for Luisa's awkward attempts at small talk. If she can only make it out the door, she can escape to a night of drinks and dancing with friends and maybe, at the end, a couple hours of amorous adventure between the sheets with a pretty girl who is closer to the age Elle wishes she were.
Luisa, as always immune to subtle hinting, presses on with her plan. "I got you a gift! Well, two actually--just in case you don't like one or the other. Though you're welcome to keep both...."
"How thoughtful!" Elle reaches out a hand to stop the other woman rambling. "But really, Luisa: you shouldn't have! I mean, I can't even remember when your birthday is."
The painful flinch is momentary--lived and discarded with well-worn practice. Luisa is far too excited about the pretty paper-wrapped boxes tucked off to the side of her workstation to be thrown off now. "Oh, well, it was just last month... but in any case, it doesn't matter! I'm so excited for you to open your gifts."
The quickest departure might be accomplished by playing along, so Elle moves over to Luisa's lab bench and examines the wrapping on her gifts: bright red foil covered in balloons, the sort of paper you'd choose to wrap a child's present. One gift is flat and rectangular, the other a near-perfect cube, just about the size of an old-fashioned hat box. "Which one should I open first?"
"You choose!" Luisa is so giddy with excitement it makes Elle twinge with sympathetic embarrassment.
With a conciliatory smile, she chooses the long flat rectangle and begins to slide her finger along the seams to loosen the tape. She can't help but notice a look of disappointment on the other woman's face. "Something wrong?"
"Oh no! It's just... I thought you'd open the big one first!"
An impatient sigh, and Elle looks at her watch. "You said I could choose. Would you rather I opened the other first?"
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes, it's fine..."
Elle watches Luisa out of the corner of her eye as she finishes loosening the paper. She wants to just rip it off and throw the gifts aside, get this painful show over with and be off to her evening plans, but she was raised better than that, and so she takes her time.
Luisa is fidgeting, nervously tucking and re-tucking the same strand of hair back behind her ear and re-adjusting her black-framed glasses on her short, round nose. It was strange to see a woman in glasses--far past being retro, no one had bothered with the things for 20 years at least. But something had gone wrong with her corrective surgery--the one in a million risk realized--and so the poor girl had to resort to the inelegant and old-fashioned solution.
Elle couldn't help but smile to herself: didn't that just describe Luisa perfectly? The one in a million dud.
Luisa notices the little smile and attributes it to her gift--she beams back, magnifying the gesture 100 fold.
Elle is immediately contrite. Her face softens, and she looks down at the thin, white box she's uncovered with a more convincing interest.
Carrington's: her favorite shop. Perhaps this won't be so bad after all.
Inside the box is a woman's silk scarf: expensive, exquisitely crafted... and hideously ugly. It's a red paisley pattern of intricate, intertwining loops and swirls. There's no question that the scarf is well-made and of a high quality, but it's much more the thing you'd find wrapped round the neck of an old society dame than that of a young, vibrant intellectual.
Elle puts on a polite and quiet smile, and thanks Luisa for her thoughtfulness. Mentally, she calculates how many times she'll have to let Luisa see her wearing the scarf before she can relegate it to the back of her closet, or donate it to the charity shop. Perhaps she'll wear it into the lab some day, and have an accident with an acid solution.
She starts to move toward the door, murmuring her goodbyes, and Luisa has to remind her: there's another gift to be opened.
This time, Elle doesn't bother with a slow, careful unwrapping: she tears through the paper and tosses it aside. The box inside has no outer markings and doesn't appear to have come from a shop. The walls of it are lightly crafted from some sort of plastic material, a dull matte gray that seems to absorb the light from the room. When she thinks back, she can remember Luisa working with a similar substance during her late nights in the lab.
Whatever is in this curious box, Elle is eager to get it open and get this over with. Dinner reservations were for 7:30, and it's very nearly a quarter past. Hastily, she grabs at the lid and is about to throw it open when Luisa stops her with a surprised squeak.
"What is it?" Elle snaps. The words are too harsh: she can recognize that, and yet she's very close to not caring. With a deep breath, she steels herself to patience: "I mean--did you have something to tell me about it?"
Luisa smiles and fidgets some more and mumbles something about her research, and a great accomplishment: she's giving Elle not just the contents of this box, but a share in her discovery. She'd like them to be partners, and she wants to bring Elle on board when she gets her R&D grant. As usual, she's using far too many words, and saying far too little with them.
"Wait a minute--I don't understand. What does that have to do with my gift? What is this?"
More mumbling and shifting, but finally Elle can make out a coherent sentence: "It's a hole in time."