Double Helix Ch. 03byFelHarper©
The next day, Sasha brought back the materials for the basement stairway, based on my measurements, and we started the project immediately. Wendy and Nissi kept up with the completion of the bathroom, sealing and sanding in preparation for painting. Stan, Stansy, Nock and myself spent that first morning and part of an afternoon just in dismantling the old stairs. Once that was done, we had to anchor the stringers before we could begin placing the treads and risers. It was fortunate that Sasha could lower our meals through the dumbwaiter, because we were less than halfway to the top by the time dinner came and we agreed to stop for the day.
Things between Nissi and me were strained. We were polite to each other, but that was all. I was not surprised to go to bed alone that night. Tilly, though, said good night to me when I turned out my light, so at least she seemed to have forgiven me.
We finished the stairs the next day and began to apply the sealing coat to the wood. That same day, Wendy announced that the bathroom was ready to paint. Both projects came to a close the next day, and I already began thinking ahead to the next.
I had been spending time with Tilly at meals, and my efforts seemed to be drawing her out a bit. Wendy even admitted to me that Tilly spoke to me more often than she did to anyone else now. Still, after another week of me visiting her at meals, I thought we had reached a plateau. She might volunteer a sentence or two for seemingly no reason at all, or she might sit passively through one of my stories for a full fifteen minutes and never comment once. More importantly, nothing seemed to move her out of the dismal haze she was under. I never saw a smile or laugh.
I had been thinking, too, about what Tilly had said to me that night after Nissi had expressed how she felt about me. It felt right, from what I knew about Nissi. That kind of perception in Tilly seemed at odds with how disconnected and withdrawn she was. How could she understand Nissi's feelings so well while secluding herself from all of us? For that matter, why did she feel driven to hide away from everyone?
I wondered if it might be because of how the others treated her with pity or thinly-veiled derision. I was certainly guilty of the former. Feeling bad for her was largely what motivated me to want to help. Maybe she didn't need my pity. Maybe she needed, more than anything, was for someone to treat her as if she were normal. That was what sparked my idea.
The next morning, I went upstairs and met Sasha in her office. Her hand moved in long, sure strokes, penning a flowchart on a large sheet of graph paper. "Can I help you, Norm?" she said, looking up briefly but returning her eyes to her work.
"Miss Gray, I want to bring Tilly into the greenhouse to work with me," I said.
"No, absolutely not," she said, the words delivered without anger but in a tone that brooked no argument.
I argued anyway. "She doesn't look like a genemod," I said. "Anyone peeking in over the fence will just assume she's human normal."
Sasha picked up a sheet of paper and glared at it. "It's still too risky."
"She's ill. I want to help her."
She dropped the paper into file folder and snapped it closed. "The agency is helping her."
"The hell it is!" I said, and slapped my hand on her desk, loudly enough to make her jump.
"Keep your voice down, Norm." Sasha's words, though spoken in a conversational tone, made my spine prickle with the ice in them. She cleared the drawing and other various papers from the desk in front of her and gestured to the chair in the corner. "Sit. Explain yourself."
I sat slowly, collecting my thoughts. When I was settled, I raised a hand and began to tick off my fingers one by one. "She's depressed. She spends all of her time alone. She barely eats. And it looks like she cut her wrists at least once."
Sasha's eyes narrowed. "What? The rest I have seen, but what is this about cutting? I knew nothing of this."
"Wendy says it happened before she got here, but if she was suicidal at one time, she might be again."
She frowned. "Still, she should have told me. I've known Tilly was not right in her mind somehow. She is eating still?"
"For the moment," I said. "She's suffering, though. You must know that."
Sasha lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. I waited for several seconds of uncomfortable silence before she raised her head. "Look, I've been fighting and arguing with my agency contact almost since that girl got here, trying to get them to send someone to look at her. They tell me just to hold on, take care of her as well as I can. They will take her off my hands soon. But 'soon' never comes."
"That's why I want to try treating her myself.".
She gave me an appraising look. "And how do you think you can help?"
"I have some ideas," I said. "But the main thing is to take her mind off of whatever is eating her up from the inside."
"And do you have any formal training in psychology?"
"Well," I faltered. "Before I decided to teach, I was going to enter med school. I did take a psychology course as an undergrad. And there's Professor Wikipedia." I grinned, feeling like a complete fool.
"That at least can be remedied," Sasha said. "I will get you some texts."
"So, does that mean you will let me take Tilly to the greenhouse with me?" I asked hopefully.
"It means I will get you psychology books. I'll think about the greenhouse. If you can show me that it will be therapeutic for her, that will add to your case."
It seemed like the best I was going to get. "Alright, I appreciate that you're willing to help."
The next few days passed quickly for me. I did the chores that Sasha assigned me during the day, and spent my evenings reading. "Dreadnought" had captured my interest once I got past the first few chapters that established the setting of the Great War and introduced various characters. The huge and technologically advanced vessel had just left Portsmouth and was headed out to sea for its first mission of the war.
Sasha brought the first of the books she had promised me, a copy of the DSM and a book on psychodynamic therapy. I started by outlining every symptom that I had observed from Tilly. Immediately, the manual seemed to be pointing me towards a diagnosis of clinical depression. My layman's interpretation of her actions certainly matched it, but the manual made it crystal clear. I felt like there might be more to the picture than that, but it was definitely a place to start.
Armed with these insights, I went to Sasha and again pleaded my case. I started to lay out Tilly's symptoms, but she waved me to silence.
"Please just do whatever you feel is best, Norm," she said.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You're letting me bring her up from the basement?"
Sasha shrugged. "I called up a few of my agency contacts and explained your concerns, including the cuts on her wrists. The first one flatly refused to help, the worthless sod. The next seemed interested, but claimed to be unable to do anything for me once I gave her Tilly's name. I pressed her for a reason, but she just came up with an excuse to get off the phone. Tilly apparently has some kind of history that the agency is aware of but is unwilling to divulge to me. The whole thing smells of bullshit. As you've said, the risk is minimal, and now I'm willing to go behind the agency's back if that's what it takes."
"I'll make sure she understands how to properly sterilize, and I'll bring her in and out as discreetly as possible."
"Yes, see that you do," Sasha said.
I had greenhouse duties the next morning, so I stopped outside Tilly's room after breakfast. "Can I come in?" I asked. I waited several seconds, knowing that it would make no difference, before stepping inside. Tilly was lying on her back on the bed. Her gaze wandered over to me. "I thought I could use your help in the greenhouse today," I said. "I've already cleared it with Miss Gray."
She stared at me for a moment before her gaze slid off me and back to the ceiling. I considered picking her up bodily and carrying her upstairs, but dismissed the thought immediately. There were just too many ways such a scenario could go wrong. "Please, I think you might enjoy it."
She looked at me again and her eyes narrowed. "Leave me alone."
Though she said the words quietly, the tone sounded almost angry. I thought that just maybe that was a good sign. I decided to take a gamble. When I spoke, I was firm but not unkind. "You might be fooling the others that you're an invalid, but I know you're perfectly capable of pulling your own weight. Now, get your shoes on and come out to the greenhouse with me. We have work to do."
She stared at me as if I had just sprouted another head. I didn't give her a chance to tell me "no" again. I left her room and went to the edge of the living area. There I waited, hopeful but anxious. If she didn't come voluntarily, I wasn't sure that there was anything I could do. Several minutes went by, and I was just beginning to think it was hopeless. It was then that she appeared, wearing a pair of faded jeans and white running shoes. Her usual lifeless shuffle had changed to a more purposeful walk, though she kept her gaze on the floor as she approached.
"Ready to work?" I asked.
Tilly dipped her head very slightly in what I took for a nod.
She walked two steps behind me as we headed for the stairs. All conversation in the room died when we crossed the room. I had told the others what I was doing, of course. Most had been cautiously supportive. Stansy had snorted and said, "Yeah, right." I don't think that any of them had thought I would get her to go through with it.
Wendy came over to us. ""Have a good time out there, Tilly," she said. In a lower voice, she added, "Be careful out there, Norm."
I nodded and began to climb the staircase. When we emerged into the back yard, Tilly inhaled sharply. I stopped to look at her. She was staring up at a bright blue sky. "You haven't seen it in a while, have you?" I asked.
She shook her head very slightly, as if trying to clear it, and moved to follow me again. I decided to have her go first, giving her careful instructions for how to use the shower and where to find the clothes inside. I took my shower quickly, concerned that she might wander off into the greenhouse without me, but found that my worries were unfounded. She sat against the wall inside the changing room, staring straight ahead at the frosted glass of the door that led inward.
She looked different, and it took me a moment to place it. Her hair which fell just to her shoulders, looked shinier, healthier, even though it was still wet. It was pulled back away from her face now, instead of hanging down into it, and I could see her large, blue eyes clearly. Her skin had a rosy sheen that it had lacked before. Had she even stopped bathing herself? Most genemods since the 70s possessed a set of different mechanisms in their immune systems, digestive tract and dermis to regulated both internal and external bacteria to minimize body odor, so it was possible that she had gone many weeks with no one the wiser.
I retrieved a clean set of clothes from the closet and stood to the side of Tilly. She was completely uninterested in me, so I dropped the towel and began to dress. She chose that moment to turn her head and look. Her gaze roved quickly up and down my mostly nude body before she turned back. I could feel my cheeks heating up even after the scalding hot shower, but had that been just a hint of a smug smile on her face? Surely it was my imagination.
"Okay, I'm ready," I said. Tilly stood to follow me. The door slid to one side when I pushed it, then rolled back to close automatically once it was released.
I inhaled deeply, taking in the loamy scent of moist soil, the pungent odors of peppers and the faintly sweet smell of strawberries. Tilly did the same, closing her eyes and rocking back slightly on her heels. "Nice, isn't it?" I said. The moment didn't last. When she let her breath out, the brief spark of life disappeared with it. Her shoulders slumped and the slackness returned to her features.
I pointed to the gardening implements arrayed at the near corner of the greenhouse. "You'll need a hoe. Today we'll be planting onions and potatoes."
She selected the long-handled tool from among the assortment, while I picked up a small spade. I brought her to the empty soil planter, which was about four feet wide by eight feet long, and showed her how to turn over the soil. While she worked down the length of the planter, I stopped and dug small holes with the spade, placed a bulb from our transplant tray and covered it just enough so that the top was still visible. When Tilly was finished, she came back to stand next to me and watched as I planted a few onions. She went over to the tools and came back with a spade of her own. She held out her hand to me.
"Here, you can start another row over there." I said. "Plant the bulbs six inches apart, and don't cover them completely."
I handed her a transplant tray and paused to watch her plant her first one. "Like this?" she asked, when she had pressed the soil in around the bulb. She had a smudge of dirt on her face, right next to her nose. The dullness had fallen away from her eyes as she focused.
"That's right," I said. "Keep going until you reach the end. We want a total of six rows in here."
We worked in silence for a bit. The warm, damp air soon had us both sweating. "They tried to help me, you know," Tilly said suddenly.
I stopped working and looked at her. "Who, the agency?"
She lifted free a clump of soil and placed a bulb in the hole. "They took me to a psychologist in Chicago."
"I take it things didn't work out?" She didn't answer, preferring to focus on carefully sweeping the dirt in around the bulb. I tried again. "Do you want to be helped?"
She didn't answer right away, so I began to plant onions again. I was nearly finished with my third row and she was halfway through her second. "I'm . . . broken," she said, haltingly.
I stopped again to look at her. I wanted to ask what that meant, but held back. I sensed that the admission had taken a great effort on her part, and I didn't want to belittle that. Instead, I puzzled over the meaning and purpose of her words. It almost sounded like she was trying to warn me off trying to help her.
"We all feel that way sometimes," I said after a pause. Then I shook my head. "Bleh, that sounds patronizing, even to me."
"It was," Tilly agreed. I laughed at that, half expecting her to laugh with me, but she didn't.
I tried a few more leading questions, but it seemed that she was done with talking. So, I told her about the greenhouse irrigation system, and how we would need to monitor soil moisture from time to time on the vegetables we just planted. After about an hour, we had a planter full of onions and another with seed potatoes.
"Let's bring some tomatoes in," I said. I knew that Sasha was getting low in the house. "Oh, and those strawberries are looking ripe."
Sasha met us at the door on our way back into the house. "Why don't you change back into your clothes in the bathroom?" she suggested. We were still wearing the sanitized work clothes. "Then I can wash those."
"We brought you tomatoes and strawberries, Miss Gray," Tilly said softly and in a rush, holding up her two baskets, one large and one small.
"Why, thank you, Tilly," Sasha said, smiling broadly and, I thought, sincerely. She opened the door for us. "I was just thinking that we could use more preserves. Put them in the kitchen, please. On your right."
Sasha stopped me with a hand on my arm. "How is it going?" she whispered.
"It's promising," I said.
"I'll say. In Russia we have a saying." She rattled off a few words in her native language. "It means, 'a workman is known by his work'. Did you know she's never spoken to me directly before?"
"Well, has anyone ever told you that you can be intimidating?"
"Once," she said, letting her accent flow thick through the words, "but I cold-cocked the bastard and he never spoke of it again." She deadpanned it so well that I thought for a moment that she was serious.
I went into the kitchen to leave my own basket of tomatoes but stopped in the middle of the floor. "Tilly!" I called. My heart had just jumped into my throat as I hurried towards the front door. She couldn't have. She wouldn't just bolt, would she?
"She's right here," Sasha called. "In the bathroom. She's getting changed, like I asked her to."
I smacked my forehead and slumped against the wall, working to come down from the scare I had just given myself. "Okay, thanks," I called.
Tilly emerged from the bathroom in her own clothes and I swapped places with her. By the time I emerged, she had already gone back downstairs, so I followed after. Wendy and Stansy were on the couch, Nock had the chair and Stan was at the computer. Nissi was seated at the table, tapping her pen rhythmically on a notebook.
"How'd it go?" Wendy asked.
"Fine, fine," I said. She nodded, taking the hint that we would talk later.
I glanced over at Nissi again and hesitated, reconsidering my original plan to go back to my room and try to relax with Stansy's book. I was feeling good about myself and my confidence had surged. Finally, I shrugged and wandered over to her. "Inspiration strikes again?" I asked.
"Like a falling i-beam," she said, giving me only a brief glance beneath her sharply upturned brows. "Another vocal piece, but with a four-part band."
I looked at the page, into which she was writing the music for bass, drums, lead guitar and vocals nearly simultaneously. "It looks pretty busy," I remarked.
"It's thrash metal," Nissi said, arching one of those perfect eyebrows at me. "The lead guitar will need to be pretty good at sweep picking and two-hand tapping. All-in-all it's pretty demanding. And very angry."
"Are you angry about something?" I asked, trying to make my tone light.
Nissi laughed. "At you? No. I guess I'm angry at our situation. Angry at myself for getting in a little deeper than I should." She paused. "Screw it. Yes, I'm angry at you, too. But I know it's not your fault. So don't worry about it."
"Maybe it was my fault. You told me you liked me and I told you to back off."
"Well, the way you make it sound, maybe I should be pissed at you."
I sighed. "I guess I was afraid. It's not like you told me you were in love, but that's what I heard. I'm sorry for that. I know you don't want to be alone, and I don't want to see you in pain."
Nissi stared at me, her eyes narrowed. It looked like she was wrestling with her feelings, like one part of her wanted to tell me to go fuck myself and the other wanted to hold me to her. "You're just trying to get into my pants again." For a moment, I thought she had opted for the first sentiment, but then her lips quirked and I saw that she was shaking, barely holding in laughter. It finally burst out of her, and I couldn't help but laugh along with her.
"So does this mean I didn't completely screw us up forever?" I asked hopefully.
"Not yet," she said. "It's hard to stay mad at you when you're so adorable."
"And devastatingly handsome," I added.
"Geeks aren't handsome," she corrected me." You're cute. But I like that better than handsome. All the handsome guys I've known were jerks."
"So are we going to have to write a lot of furious, angst-ridden lyrics now?" I asked, seeing that she was no longer scribbling furiously at the page and appeared to be looking it over for mistakes.
"Afraid so," she said. "If I don't at least get some of this done, I'll be up all night." She leaned over the table and gave me a brief but passionate kiss. "So let's get started," she said.