In response, the eighteen-year-old young woman mustered a long, dramatic groan that lasted approximately ten seconds and filled the entire kitchen. The marble countertop was slick and cool against her forehead, where she dropped it dramatically and covered her head with her arms. From the dining hall nearby, she could hear the murmurs of a hundred voices chattering, boasting, laughing — the warm, happy din of a Concordia party in her very own sprawling home. A Concordia party she was determined to avoid.
Much to Vinia’s irritation. Vinia was the Adler family chef and tonight’s bartender and server. All night long he filed in and out, appetizers held high in his tray, bottles under his arm. And all night long Leta watched him and did not leave the kitchen.
“Your father could use your help out there hosting,” he told her. He sounded stern, but Leta knew him better than that. She snuck a glance from behind her arms — he was uncorking another bottle of white wine. “And Layka’s son has been asking about you all night.”
Without no hesitation whatsoever Leta muttered, “Well he can fuck right off then.”
Vinia glanced at her. He did not look surprised by her language. He had never been surprised by her language, even when she was a child. “Who, exactly?” he wondered, frowning curiously. “Your father, Layka, or his son?”
In spite of herself, Leta felt a begrudging grin come to her face. “All of them. Vinia, this party was supposed to end an hour ago. I’m going to bed.”
Just as she went to slide off her barstool, Vinia caught her eye meaningfully. Too meaningfully.
“It’s not like you to hide,” he said after a moment. Leta knew she was being baited when he continued, “What happened to the Leta who enjoyed the chance to show off? Who snuck liquor out when she was way too young to drink? Who made fun of every party guest right in front of their faces?”
“I’m afraid she died, Vinia,” she sighed mournfully, “somewhere between her fourth and twelfth shot of whiskey.”
Immediately, the amusement fell off the chef’s face. It was strange, but when he got all stern like that it sort of reminded her of her mother. If she were alive, undoubtedly she would have been right there on his side. Together, the two of them had made an amazingly, annoyingly unstoppable duo.
After a ten-second wordless-but-heated staring contest, Leta groaned in defeat. “Fine,” she muttered at last, sliding off the stool. “But I’m taking this with me,” she added, and grabbed for the bottle of wine.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
It was wrong to be resentful of this party, Leta knew. It was wrong, and it was also incredibly bratty. She was lucky — blessed, in fact — to have a house, a feast and a few family members to celebrate the holiday with at all. She knew this, and if she truly wanted to be the kind of life-changing physician someday who saved lives of those in desperate need — and she most certainly did — she had to recognize privilege when she saw it. She was lucky. Very lucky to be here. Yes. Very lucky. She repeated this to herself a dozen times as she stepped into the crowded, gleaming hall.
Still, repeating this to herself did not change the fact that it was late on a Saturday evening and everyone in attendance was at least twice her age. Well, except for Layka’s son. She accidentally caught his eye (what was his name again? Larson? Lawkin?), and hurriedly slipped through the crowd in the opposite direction.
Safe for the moment, Leta stood off to the side and brought the wine bottle to her lips — she had not bothered to grab a glass. She was just planning her next move (she owed her father a hello, probably), when a voice in her ear caught her unaware.
“Leta! I was hoping I’d see you tonight.”
It was one of her father’s friends, an older man with a round belly, friendly face and frizzy white hair. He flicked his eyes to her bottle of wine curiously but did not comment on her lack of glassware. Instead, he lifted his gaze and mused kindly, “My gods, you look more and more like your mother every time I see you.”
Leta moved her lips: it was almost a smile. “Well, thank you, Mr. — ”
“Reagle. But you can call me Cambridge. I wouldn’t blame you at all if you hadn’t remembered; we’ve only met once. Which is unfortunate! I’ve needed to get ahold of you.” He sidled closer. Leta noted the crystal rocks glass in his hand was near empty, and judging by the redness in his face, it was not his first drink. Still, his voice was smooth and professional, not drunk. “I know it’s rude to talk business at a party, and I won’t keep you. But I wanted to do this in person before you get a dozen notes delivered to you from my receptionist.”
Leta wasn’t sure what the correct reaction was to this greeting. She simply said, “Oh?”
“Yes indeedy. Miss Leta, I’ve worked alongside your father before, and now I work in Vescent’s Division of Biological Sciences. I’m heading a new project. It couldn’t be more up your alley. I’d be lying if I said you were on our ‘short list.’ The truth is, you are our list.”
With a bit of a flourish, he withdrew a card from his breast pocket. Leta did not reach for it but she focused her eyes on the writing: it was a business card that contained his name, his contact information and in the corner, the bold, black symbol of the Society. The black librera she was seeing more and more often these days.
After a moment, Leta tore her eyes away. “That’s very kind of you,” said Leta finally, using a tone of voice that surely would have made Vinia commend her manners. She even managed to sound apologetic. “But I’m afraid I’m in school already, and next year I’m applying early for medical school.”
What Leta expected was for Cambridge to say, “is that right?!” or “are you really then?” or “at your age? how extraordinary!” because that’s what all of her father’s friends said. But what Cambridge said was, still smiling, “I know. I did my homework, and I’m prepared to work entirely around your schedule. I’ve spoken with your guidance counselor, who simply cannot say enough good things about you. Oh, and I included a few details on the back of the card,” he added, and this time he pressed it into her hand. “Think on it, and send me a message after the holiday.”
He tipped his glass at her, smiled, and melted back into the crowd.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“That wasn’t so awful now, was it?”
Vinia was loading the dishwasher. Leta sat on the counter near him, dangling her bare feet toward the floor, still nursing the same bottle of wine. It was nearly 2 a.m. and the guests had left; the house was empty and silent once more. The holiday was over.
“Well,” said Leta, flashing the chef a smile, “The food was fantastic at least.” But Vinia wasn’t wrong: aside from that strange encounter with Reagle Cambridge, the night hadn’t been so terrible after all. Eventually she’d found a few of her father’s more gossipy friends, all of whom had been fantastically drunk. And Layka’s son had seemed to give up on her. And even her father seemed to be enjoying himself for once.
“I can’t believe it, but we survived yet another one of these,” Leta muttered in disbelief. She took the last swig from the bottle, sighed tiredly and pushed herself from the counter. “G’night, Vinia.”
“Goodnight, my dear.”
Upstairs, Leta undressed for bed in her bathroom. Just as her shining emerald-green dress dropped to her feet, a small, square piece of paper — Cambridge’ business card — fluttered down to the floor from the forgotten folds of her clothing.
She leaned to pick it up, and went to toss it in the garbage where it belonged, when the handwriting on the back of the card caught her eye. She paused, and turned it over in her hand.
The project in development is in the field of neuroscience. I did not wish to say so in person, but this is a project your mother long wished to see come to light.
If you’d like to come in for a formal interview, we would be more than thrilled to show you around the lab.
Have a lovely holiday.
Dr. Reagle Cambridge
The Society for Intergalactic Unification