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Hanging by a Thread • The Gift

P. C. Weber

THE WOMAN WALKED at a brisk pace to escape the brutal heat of the midday sun. She stopped periodically to shift the heavy bundle on her back, humming softly all the while in a futile attempt to soothe the screaming infant in her arms. The trail she was on eventually emptied into a road choked with mud from the morning’s rain, and the sludge caused her pace to slow considerably. Nevertheless, the woman pushed herself onwards and finally came to a small but busy village set in a patch of recently cleared forest. She drifted through its tiny central marketplace, then made her way to one of the many decrepit shacks lining the outskirts of town. Pretending not to notice the stares and whispers of her neighbors, she entered the squalid dwelling and deposited the load she had been carrying onto its dirt floor.

Exhausted, the woman sat down and began to gently rock her child until his crying diminished to a whimper. She then used her free hand to loosen the bundle and pour its contents out onto the ground. Picking through the dirty bottles, pieces of wood, and scraps of half-eaten food that had spilled out, she located the small metal object which she had found during her morning’s scavenging. The woman examined it carefully and ran her fingers over its shiny surface, pausing to study the intricate assortment of mysteriously labeled buttons that were clustered at one end. She pushed in the largest of these, and the device suddenly came to life. Two tiny wheels behind a clear plastic window started to spin in unison, and the object immediately began to emit a droning sound not unlike that of a distant waterfall.

Startled by this unforeseen outcome, the woman nearly dropped the device. Setting it down quickly in the dirt, she slid her body away in fear and clung to her child tightly as the noise continued. However, she soon noticed that her infant was completely mesmerized by the sound that the object produced, and to her relief and amazement his crying ceased entirely just a short while later. The mother began to relax at last, and before long was lovingly stroking the soft cheeks and delicate chin of the child that now lay cooing in her arms. The two continued to listen to the hypnotic resonance produced by the falling water, until the woman thought she began to hear faint murmurs of human speech within the device. She leaned forward to listen more closely, then drew back uneasily as two voices abruptly emerged, forcing the lilting song of the water into the background. Frightened at first, the mother eventually realized that the device had somehow captured a man and woman engaged in conversation. She began to listen with great interest to the words they spoke to each other.

“So, where would you like to start?” asked the man’s voice.

“Wherever you feel comfortable,” replied the woman in the recording.

“I suppose we should go all the way back to Detroit. I guess that’s where all of this began.”

“I think that would be a great place to start.”

“All right, then … Detroit it is.”

“And you will tell me everything?”

“Yes, everything … and you will never share what you are about to hear with anyone?”

“I promise you that I will never tell another soul. You have my word on that.”

“Don’t worry … I trust you.”

“I thank you for that. I hope you truly believe in your heart that you can trust me, Thomas.”

“For better or for worse, I have not trusted many people in my life. But I have come to trust you.” Thomas paused momentarily, then continued. “So, this must be a first for you … an interview that no one else will ever see or hear.”

“I know it sounds silly, but I must do this. … I have come too far to not know the truth about you.”

“The truth about me?” Thomas chuckled. “Sometimes the truth can be a very strange thing.”

“Maybe it’s more than that. Somehow I feel like my whole life has brought me to this one day, and whether or not anyone else knows what we say to each other this afternoon is completely irrelevant. As we go along, perhaps you will begin to understand what I mean by that.”

“I think I already do.” There was a very long pause in Thomas’ voice, which allowed the melody of the falling water to once again fill the recording. “Very well, then … we should begin. So, let me tell you all about Detroit … back in the day …”

“HELLO, I’M THOMAS,” whispered the young man as he buttoned his shirt in front of his bedroom mirror. “I’m here for the one o’clock interview.”

A small boy sat on a stool in the corner of the room, watching him intently. “What did you say, Uncle Thomas?” asked the child.

Thomas finished fastening the last button and walked over to him. “Hello, I’m Thomas Morgan. … I’m here for the one o’clock interview,” he repeated aloud, extending his hand as if to initiate a handshake. When the boy grasped his hand in return, Thomas shot the fingers of his other hand into the boy’s exposed armpit and began to tickle him mercilessly. The child recoiled in a fit of uncontrolled giggling, and was about to tumble onto the floor when Thomas caught him. “You fall for that every time, Jinx!” he snickered.

“Uncle Thomas, I keep telling you, I’m not Jinx … I’m Gerald!” protested the boy, still laughing as he climbed back onto the stool.

“Nope, your name’s Jinx,” chuckled Thomas, tucking his shirt in. “That’s because you’re nothing but bad news.” He picked up the tie that was lying on a nearby dresser and walked back over to the mirror. “Now, for the fun part,” he muttered quietly to himself. Thomas attempted to knot the tie three different ways, then ripped it off in frustration and squeezed his eyes shut. “Kathy!” he called out in an angry voice. Not hearing any reply, he turned to his nephew and motioned him forward. “Jinx, go find your mom,” he ordered. “I think she’s outside watering her flowers.” The boy bolted past him and raced up the basement stairs. Thomas now walked over to the bed in the corner of the room and sat down, staring blankly at the floor.

Gerald returned a moment later, his mother following closely behind. Kathy looked over at her brother and immediately discerned the tension smoldering in his eyes. “What’s the matter now?” she asked him gently.

“Could you please show me how to tie this fucking thing?” snapped Thomas, gripping the tie tightly in his fist. “Why the hell do people have to wear something as idiotic as this, anyway? What an absolutely useless piece of clothing!”

“Uh-oh … Uncle Thomas said a bad word!” whispered Gerald to his mother. He thought for a moment, then he corrected himself. “No, wait … he said two bad words!”

“Yes, Gerald, he certainly did … and I’m sure he feels very bad about that, too,” replied Kathy, glaring over at Thomas. She reached down and tussled her son’s hair. “You go play upstairs now, OK, sweetie?”

“But I want to stay here with Uncle Thomas!” pleaded Gerald.

“No, you have to go on up,” insisted his mother. “I need to help your uncle right now.”

Gerald looked down sadly and turned to leave, but Thomas got up off the bed and walked over to stop him. “Come here, Jinx,” implored Thomas as he knelt down and wrapped his arms around the boy. “Thanks for helping me to get ready today, little dude,” he whispered into his ear.

“Sure, Uncle Thomas,” whispered Gerald back. The two hugged each other, then the boy walked slowly out the door and up the stairs.

Kathy stepped over to Thomas and turned him around to face her. She put the tie back around his neck and worked on the knot for a period of time in silence. “You know, Gerald absolutely idolizes you,” she said at last. “You shouldn’t be using that kind of language around him.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “I know … I’m just really tense this morning.”

“Everything is going to go just fine with your interview,” Kathy reassured him. “You shouldn’t be worried about that at all.”

“Whatever you say, chief.”

“I hope you also know that I’m very proud of you today,” continued Kathy, ignoring her brother’s sarcasm. “After all that’s gone on over the past year, I didn’t know how things were going to turn out with you, Thomas … but I’m so glad you’re finally trying to settle down and do something good with your life. I think you know you can do anything you want if you just set your mind to it.” She finished tying the knot and drew it up snugly against his collar. “And right now, you’ve got the best-looking Windsor knot in town,” declared Kathy with a smile. She then retrieved a suit coat from a nearby closet and brought it over to him. “Here, try this on.”

Thomas pulled the coat over his shoulders and turned to study himself in the mirror. “Does Chuck know that I’m lifting one of his suits for a day?” he inquired with a smirk.

“No … and he doesn’t need to know, either,” replied Kathy, turning him back around towards her. She ran the palms of her hands across his shoulders and down his arms, then began to tug at his sleeves. “It’s a tad short on you, but I think it’ll be OK. After all, it’s only for one afternoon. Just don’t spill anything on it, Thomas.”

“Knowing your husband, he’d probably bust a gasket if he found out I was even wearing some of his fancy clothes, let alone bringing them home all full of crud,” chuckled Thomas.

“Come now, Chuck doesn’t hate you,” admonished Kathy, frowning at her brother. “The two of you really need to start getting along with each other a bit better. Things have gotten completely out of hand between you guys as of late.” She then spun him back towards the mirror and yanked at the wild mane of hair that flowed down his back. “Jeez, Thomas, would it have killed you to have gotten rid of some of this for today? This is a very important interview, and first impressions count for an awful lot.”

“Sorry, cutting the hair was never an option,” responded Thomas bluntly. He turned back around and smiled as he caught his sister shaking her head at him. “You know, if Mom were still around, she’d be real proud of you. I mean, you dump on me just like a mother sometimes.”

Kathy glowered at Thomas, her eyes welling up with tears. “That’s it, I’m done here,” she announced curtly. She then left him and began to walk towards the stairs.

Thomas ran quickly ahead of her and blocked the doorway so she couldn’t leave. “I’m sorry, Kathy. I meant what I said in a good way … I really did. I just come off sounding like a real asshole at times.” He put his hands on her shoulders as she wiped a tear from her eyes with the back of her hand. “You’re the best. … If I didn’t have you looking out for me all these years, I don’t know where I’d be right now. Probably in some gutter somewhere … or maybe even six feet under.”

“Oh, you can be so difficult to be around sometimes, Thomas!” cried out Kathy in frustration. “I don’t know how I’ve put up with you all this time!” She then reached out and hugged her brother dearly. “You knock ’em dead today,” she whispered.

“I’ll give it my best shot,” promised Thomas, patting her on the back.

Kathy released him and led him towards the stairs. “Is Ritchie still coming by for you?” she asked, wiping her eyes once again.

“Yeah … that moron better not be late,” grumbled Thomas. He then slid his hand inside his suit coat and clutched his stomach. “Man, am I nervous. … I think I’ll just go out front and wait for him.”

“All right, you go on ahead, then.”

Thomas leaned down and kissed his sister on the cheek before turning to depart. “Thanks for everything this morning. … I’ll see you whenever.”

“Good luck, Thomas,” called out Kathy encouragingly as her brother ambled up the basement stairs and disappeared out the side entrance to the house. Once the screen door had slammed loudly behind him, she closed her eyes and folded her hands in silent devotion. “Please watch over him today,” whispered Kathy aloud at the conclusion of her prayers, crossing herself devoutly. She then turned off the basement lights and made her way back upstairs.

THE RUSTING BLACK van with its two occupants worked its way slowly through the streets of the medical center until it came at last to the entrance of an immense parking lot. The driver stopped to pull the ticket out of the box that was now buzzing impatiently at him and waited for the gate to rise. He then drove the vehicle into the lot and began to wave the parking stub annoyingly in his passenger’s face. “I suppose I’m the one who’s gonna have to pay for this, aren’t I, dude?” asked the driver with a grin.

Thomas grabbed the ticket out of his hand and threw it up onto the dashboard. “Damn it, Ritchie, I told you before that I’ll be paying for the parking. Just dump this piece of shit somewhere so I can go inside there and get this over with.”

“Hey, this so-called piece of shit always gets us to where we’re going, dude,” responded Ritchie defensively. He went to the farthest corner of the lot and backed his van into a parking space. After shutting the engine off, he got out of his seat and made his way through an assortment of musical equipment strewn about the floor of the vehicle to open up the rear windows. A warm breeze quickly filled the interior, temporarily sweeping away the stench from years of cigarette smoke, fast food, and spilled alcohol. Upon returning to the front of the van, Ritchie pulled a small plastic film canister and a packet of rolling papers out of the glove box, then sat back easily in his seat. “You want to get high before you go in there?” he inquired of Thomas with a smile.

Thomas fixed his gaze upon the canister and hesitated for a moment. “That’s pretty tempting … but no, I’d better not.” He then looked out his window and exhaled deeply. “Besides, I’m already scared shitless right now. I mean that quite literally … I’ve been on the toilet all morning long, and there isn’t a single ounce of crap left in me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so freaked about anything in all my life.” Thomas paused to glance down uncomfortably at his suit and tie. “It certainly doesn’t help matters that I’m wearing these geek clothes, either.”

“Yeah, I have to admit, you do look like a complete dork today, dude,” laughed Ritchie. He pulled out a dried bud of marijuana from the film canister and ground it up carefully between his fingers, positioning a folded rolling paper beneath his work to capture the crushed fragments as they fell. After picking out the seeds, he began to roll the thin paper into a tight cylinder, continuing to snicker at his friend as he did so. “But hey, who’s really gonna care what you dressed like this afternoon, you know?” he went on. “They’re gonna take one look at that hair of yours and say, ‘Get the hell out of here, freak. Who invited you here on an interview anyway?’” Ritchie licked the adhesive edge of the rolling paper and used his fingers to smooth over the finished joint. He then scrutinized Thomas’ thick brown mane and grinned. “Looks great onstage, dude … but very bad for landing respectable jobs in the real world.”

Thomas glanced over at Ritchie’s wiry dyed hair and grimaced. “Well, at least they won’t be thinking that I’ve got orange steel wool pads glued to the top of my head,” he countered.

“Ouch!” chuckled Ritchie as he placed the joint between his lips. “You nailed me there, dude!”

Thomas reached behind him and ran his fingers through the long tendrils that streamed wildly over his shoulders and down his back. “I’m hoping that the hair thing won’t be an issue,” he mused nervously. “You’d think that the way I look shouldn’t have anything to do with what kind of scientist I’m going to be … but you never know who’s going to be an asshole.”

“Hey, I’m just giving you shit, man,” reassured Ritchie. “You know that. I’m always here for you, dude.” Lighting the joint at last, he took in a deep hit, then passed it over to Thomas. “Have some … it’s killer weed,” he said, his voice straining as he tried to keep from exhaling.

“No way,” replied Thomas, shaking his head adamantly. “When I’m all done in there, I’ll get wasted … but not before.” He looked down at his hands, which trembled slightly as he lifted them off his lap, then glanced out the window towards the buildings of the medical center. “I think I should probably get going. So, what are you going to do while I’m in there?”

“Get high and jam, dude,” answered Ritchie with a laugh. He rose from his seat once again and stumbled into the rear of the van. Opening up a long, flat black case that was lying on the floor, he lifted out an electric guitar and brought the instrument back to the front of the vehicle. Ritchie went on to connect an output cord from the guitar to a small amplifier behind Thomas’ seat, pausing briefly to take another hit from his joint. He then plugged the amplifier’s power cord into the van’s cigarette lighter.

“No, don’t use the speaker in your amp,” warned Thomas. “Plug in your headphones instead.”

“But I hate using the headphones, dude,” complained Ritchie as he flipped on the switch to the amplifier.

“Look, this lot is in the middle of one of the worst hoods in the city, so it’s likely to be under all kinds of security surveillance,” explained Thomas in an irritated voice. “The last thing I need is for my ride to get busted while I’m on an interview for graduate school.”

Ritchie’s eyes darted around in mock suspicion as he once again inhaled deeply from the joint. “You mean that we’re being watched right now?” he whispered anxiously to Thomas. He then began to laugh uncontrollably as he exhaled the smoke, composing himself only after he noticed his friend glaring coldly at him. “You crack me up, dude!” proclaimed Ritchie. “Even when you’re not high, you’re still paranoid as all hell!”

“Just don’t screw up out here, dillhole,” replied Thomas. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” He stepped out of the van and slammed the door shut, then started out towards the large cluster of buildings that loomed across the street.

Ritchie extinguished the joint in the van’s ashtray and called out his friend’s name, prompting Thomas to stop and look back at him in silence. “You go have your fun with that science thing,” he shouted out. “You even go get yourself a career, if you think that’ll make you happy. But just remember, dude … when you’re done screwing around with all that bullshit, your music will be waiting for you … and I’ll be waiting, too.” He then pulled on a set of headphones and began to play an intricate improvisation on his guitar. Thomas stood there for a moment and watched Ritchie, his fingers dancing nimbly up and down the frets of his instrument as he became increasingly lost in music that only he could hear, then resumed his reluctant march into the medical center.

“HELLO, I’M THOMAS Morgan. … I’m here for the one o’clock interview.”

The receptionist behind the desk stopped typing to look up at Thomas, then paused at length to study him. “You’re applying for graduate studies in the Department of Microbiology?” she asked at last, a hint of incredulity in her voice.

“Um … yes, I am,” replied Thomas, somewhat taken aback by her manner. The young woman dropped her hands from the keyboard and now began to stare at him. Thomas allowed her to take in a long look, then spoke again. “Is there some sort of problem?” he inquired politely.

“Well, no … it’s just that you don’t look like any of our other applicants for the graduate program,” commented the receptionist with a smirk. She then glanced down at a printed schedule that was lying atop one of several neat piles of papers on her desk. “Your itinerary here says you’re going to meet with Dr. Rutledge first. I’ll take you to him.” The receptionist rose from her chair and headed towards the door, and Thomas trailed her out of the office. She led him down a series of long corridors, and he peered with interest into the various laboratories and equipment rooms that lined the hallways. They eventually entered a large office suite, where she knocked on a half-opened door near the back of the room. “Dr. Rutledge … Thomas Morgan is here for his one o’clock interview,” she announced.

A bearded man in his forties who had been typing furiously on a computer keyboard looked up with a scowl on his face, then glanced down at his watch. “Shit,” he muttered. “Is it one already? All right, send him in, then.”

“I’ll be back to escort you to your next interview,” mumbled the receptionist to Thomas before leaving him standing awkwardly in the doorway. Thomas entered the office and held out his hand. “Hello, Dr. Rutledge … I’m Thomas Morgan,” he said politely as the two shook hands. The professor then motioned Thomas to a chair across from his desk, which was stacked high with piles of papers and scientific journals.

“So, we finally meet,” declared Rutledge without emotion as he picked up a file and began thumbing through it. “You’re certainly one of our more interesting applicants in recent memory. Is it ‘Thomas’ or ‘Tom?’”

“‘Thomas’ will do.”

“How about ‘Morgan’ instead?”

“Um … sure, that works, too.”

“Well, Morgan, I think we should start by discussing your all-too-brief career in medical school, don’t you?”

“We can begin there, if you’d like,” answered Thomas, shifting uneasily in his seat.

“Yes, I believe we will,” replied Rutledge, still leafing through the pages of the folder. “So, I know that one year ago, you were coming out of college with a 4.0 GPA, you had graduated at the top of your school’s honors program, and you had achieved nearly perfect scores on the admission exam for medical school. Based on those considerations, you were accepted into our college of medicine here last fall, with a full financial aid package, no less. But when it came time to start your first year of our curriculum, you never bothered to enroll in classes.” He set down the file and finally looked up at Thomas. “You know, I’m a curious guy, Morgan. That’s why I’d really like to know just what was going through that head of yours when you decided to blow off medical school the way you did.” Leaning back in his chair, Rutledge placed his hands on top of his head and began to stare blankly at Thomas.

“I decided that medical school wasn’t something that I wanted to do,” stated Thomas slowly but firmly.

Rutledge laughed derisively at him. “Not something you wanted to do, huh? Nothing like last-minute decisions, wouldn’t you say?” He leaned forward and resumed browsing through the file. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Morgan. I talked to Len Weisman, the director of admissions at our medical school. I know him pretty well, because the two of us have served together for years on some bullshit committees here at the university. I asked him all about you … and do you know what he told me?”

“I have no idea,” replied Thomas, tapping his foot silently on the floor.

“Well, Morgan, let me enlighten you,” chuckled Rutledge. “He told me that I shouldn’t go near you with a ten-foot pole. He thinks that you’re a fucking head case. What do you think about that?”

“I guess everyone’s entitled to their own opinions,” answered Thomas, attempting to be gracious.

“Is that so?” Rutledge now looked up from the file and glared across the desk at Thomas. “Do you have any idea how many sniveling little pre-med pukes there are in this world who would have killed their own grandmothers just to be in the position you were in a year ago?”

“Quite a few, I’d imagine,” responded Thomas, a faint smile appearing on his lips. “I went to school with a whole bunch of them.”

“So tell me, then … why did you piss it all away when you had it made like that? Why, for Christ’s sake?”

Thomas sighed softly and looked down at his hands. “As I said before … in the end, medical school wasn’t something that I wanted to do.”

Rutledge let out a deep breath and shook his head at Thomas. “Look, Morgan, you’ve got to view this from my perspective. I’ve worked for years to build my research program into what it is today. I’ve published hundreds of papers and I’ve got grant money pouring out of my ass. Why, there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get at least a dozen letters from people who want to join my lab. Many of them are very qualified, Morgan, so I can afford to be extremely discriminating as to who I select to work in my group.” He closed the folder at last and tossed it into a large pile of paperwork behind him. “Are you a quitter?” asked Rutledge suddenly.

“What?” whispered Thomas with a look of disbelief.

“It’s a very simple question, Morgan … I want to know if you’re a quitter.”

“No, I am most definitely not a quitter,” replied Thomas indignantly.

“To be honest, I could care less that you never went to medical school,” confessed Rutledge with a snicker. “That’s because I can’t think of a bigger waste of someone’s gray matter than becoming an M.D. In fact, you should meet some of the med students we’ve got at this place, Morgan. Each one of them thinks they’re God’s gift to science, but they’re really just a bunch of fucking idiots. All I do from one year to the next is spoon-feed these brats their lectures in medical microbiology. Then, I get to watch them upchuck this minimal set of facts that I’ve provided them with on some simple-assed test where sixty percent is a passing grade. Sixty fucking percent! You see, Morgan, each year I don’t help mold students into becoming physicians … I just rubber-stamp a bunch of spoiled, whining morons for the dean so he can keep up the accreditation on this dump. So believe me, you didn’t miss out on a damn thing when you flushed your medical school career down the shitter last year.” Rutledge paused to take a gulp of coffee from the cup that was sitting next to his computer, then began to stare intensely at Thomas. “I just want to know what’s going to happen if this department commits to having you in its graduate program. Are you going to try this out for a few weeks and then walk because you think it sucks? Or are you going to tough it out when things start to get bad? Because believe me, Morgan, things can get really bad when you’re in graduate school.”

“I did an honors thesis project during my final year in college, so I know that research can be challenging,” responded Thomas. “I think I’m prepared for what lies ahead in a graduate program.”

“Give me a break, Morgan!” scoffed Rutledge. “Graduate school isn’t some honors thesis experiment! It isn’t some semester-long project with a predetermined outcome where someone is holding your hand in the lab the whole time. Are you ready for the days when you fail to generate a single meaningful piece of data for weeks or even months at a time? What about those moments when you’ll feel like you’re no closer to getting your Ph.D. than the day you first walked in the door? I haven’t seen anything in your application that would make me believe that you’re mentally prepared for any of that.”

“I can do this,” declared Thomas quietly.

“How do I know that?” snapped Rutledge.

“Look, I said I can do this,” shot back Thomas.

“Again, how do I know that?” repeated Rutledge with a snide chortle. “Give me one good reason to believe I should allow someone like you into our program. … Just one good reason, Morgan!”

Thomas flung himself forward and smashed both of his fists down violently on Rutledge’s desk. “I know I can do this because it’s the only fucking thing I’ve got left in my life!” he roared, his face flushing red with anger. Rutledge flinched backwards, gripping the arm rests of his chair tightly. Thomas turned his head to the side momentarily to collect himself, then spoke slowly and deliberately. “If you feel that I am wasting your time today, Dr. Rutledge, I sincerely apologize for that. Just let me know if that’s the case, and I will be off to the next interview on my schedule in the blink of an eye. But do not ever question my resolve or my commitment to become a scientist … not in your lab, nor in anyone else’s.”

A smile materialized slowly on Rutledge’s face. “Ah, passion. … That was the big uncertainty I had when it came to you, Morgan. It’s obvious from looking at your application that you have all the potential to be a thoroughbred in the laboratory. You clearly have the intellect and the bench skills to succeed in a career in science. I just wasn’t convinced about the passion you had for the task at hand … until now.” He eased back into his chair and waited for Thomas to do the same, then picked up a pen from his desk and began tumbling it effortlessly across the tops of his fingers. “As you know, there are many faculty members who participate in our graduate program in microbiology. Most incoming students prefer to do short stints in several different labs before they settle on a dissertation advisor. Yet, I see from the letter of intent in your application that you are already sold on the idea of working in my laboratory. Why is that?”

“My reasoning is fairly straightforward,” answered Thomas. “I want to study bacterial pathogenesis, plain and simple. I have become very familiar with your work, so I know that you are one of the world leaders in this area of research. You publish constantly, and some of the most productive scientists in the field have trained previously in your lab as either grad students or postdocs. I feel that working with you and your research group would be an incredible opportunity …”

“Enough, Morgan,” interrupted Rutledge, holding up his hand. “You can pull your nose out of my ass now.” Thomas winced slightly at his words, to Rutledge’s amusement. “Look, before you get all carried away, you should understand what it’s really like to be part of my laboratory. You see, I fully expect my people to be in here working no less than seven days a week. Furthermore, I demand that your research project become the most important thing in your life. If it’s not, then I can assure you that you won’t be in my lab for very long. That standard of commitment is the only way we can maintain our level of productivity and keep an edge over our competitors.” He brought his hands up to rest under his chin as he gazed intently at Thomas. “Now, having said all that, are you still interested?”

“What you’ve just described would be the same expectations I have of myself,” affirmed Thomas with a nod.

“Good,” replied Rutledge. “So, your timing couldn’t be better, Morgan. I found out last week that I’m going to get a nice chunk of NIH funding to do some exploratory tuberculosis research. We responded to an RFA a while back to address the resurgence of drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis infections worldwide. It seems that the growing global incidence of untreatable tuberculosis has finally got Washington’s attention, what with all the new cases from the AIDS epidemic in Africa and all the infected scum lying around in Russian prisons. With your previous lab experience and your strong molecular biology skills, I think you’d match up quite well with this project. … What do you think, Morgan?”

“I … I don’t know what to say,” stammered Thomas. “I’ve always wanted to work on a bug like Mycobacterium, and tuberculosis is one of the greatest unmet medical needs in the world today, particularly in developing nations.” He paused and took a deep breath. “This sounds too good to be true.”

“Believe me, it’s real,” responded Rutledge, taking another drink of his coffee. “So, here’s the deal I’m offering you, Morgan. If you’re interested in doing this project, I need you to verbally commit to it today … as in right here, right now. To be fair, I will tell you that the department typically recommends that all incoming students do multiple lab rotations their first year, then select a dissertation advisor at the start of their second year. But if you ask me, that’s just fucking stupid. I mean, if you already know that you want to work in my research program, why not start doing that now … right?”

“Are you offering me a position in your lab?” asked Thomas incredulously.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, and this arrangement would be effective immediately,” confirmed Rutledge. He then lowered his voice momentarily. “I have a slush fund pooled from some other grants that I should be able to pay you out of for the rest of the summer. But nobody needs to know about that, all right? Are we on the same page with that, Morgan?” Thomas nodded silently. “Once you’re officially here in the fall, we’ll have you declare your intent to name me as your dissertation advisor. Then I’ll set you up with a stipend off of my tuberculosis grant.”

“A stipend?”

“Yes, a stipend. Essentially, you’ll be paid to go to graduate school. Plus, the grant will cover your entire tuition the whole time you’re here, as well as some health benefits.”

“Shit, that’s unbelievable …” blurted out Thomas before quickly checking himself. “I’m sorry … I mean that’s a really generous offer, Dr. Rutledge.”

“Ah, maybe now we’re seeing the real Thomas Morgan,” laughed Rutledge. He then gave Thomas a quick once-over. “Speaking of which, what’s with the hair, anyway? Are you in a band or something?”

“Um … kind of,” replied Thomas in a diffident tone.

“Really? What instrument do you play?”

“Bass guitar. … I do vocals as well.”

“What sort of music?”

“Metal. … Mostly original songs.”

“You don’t say,” remarked Rutledge with a smirk. “So, were you all broken up when that grunge guy in Seattle blew his brains out a few weeks ago?”

“Well, I can’t say it was one of the happier moments of my life when I heard about that particular suicide,” admitted Thomas.

Rutledge chuckled at him. “Morgan, as long as you’re working your ass off at the lab bench, you can listen to whatever kind of crap you want. You can even grow your hair past your rear end, for all I care. The way you spend your spare time is irrelevant to me, because after all, you’re not going to have a whole lot of spare time from this point on. That means whatever aspirations you might have had for a career in music end the day you set foot in my lab. … You’re going to be a scientist now, Morgan.”

“I understand completely,” stated Thomas with conviction.

Rutledge finished off the last of his coffee. “I’d like to have you start working here first thing next week. Is there anything that might prevent you from doing that?”

“Unfortunately, right now I don’t have any means of transportation,” replied Thomas regretfully.

“Not a problem,” assured Rutledge. He pulled out a checkbook from a drawer in his desk and began filling out a draft. “I’m going to give you an advance on your summer work, Morgan. I want you to use part of this to make a down payment on a car. The dealer I buy all my vehicles from can set you up with something that will get you safely in and out of Detroit on a daily basis. I’ll give him a call and make sure that he knows about your upcoming stipend, so you end up with a fair line of credit.” Rutledge ripped out the check he had written and handed it to Thomas. “Here you go … just show up for work next Monday and we’ll get you started. But remember, you’ll need to declare your intention to have me as your dissertation advisor the first week of school in the fall.”

When Thomas looked at the draft, his eyes opened wide. “Whoa … is this legal?”

“How is that relevant, Morgan?” answered Rutledge coldly. “The federal government gives us money to do research, and that’s what we do. If it involves shifting around some of our resources here and there to get things done, that’s no big deal as far as I’m concerned. Are you on board with that?”

Thomas hesitated for a moment before answering him. “Sure, no problem.”

“Good,” said Rutledge, tossing the checkbook back into his desk. “As you know, you’re scheduled to interview with a couple of the other professors on our admissions committee this afternoon. To me, that’s just a formality because of our agreement here today. So just go through the motions with them, and then I will see you again on Monday.”

“I’ll be here,” replied Thomas eagerly. “And thank you for the offer to work in your lab, Dr. Rutledge. I know I can …”

Rutledge held up his hand once again to silence Thomas. “I hope you realize that I’m taking a big chance on you, Morgan … so don’t let me down.” He then turned abruptly back to his computer and resumed typing. Thomas quietly left his office and met the receptionist out in the hallway. As he followed her to his next interview, he folded up the check Rutledge had just given him with trembling hands and buried it deeply within the pocket of his suit coat …

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