Fia opened her eyes for the first time, and she drew in a gasp. Pain. Pain was in everything. There was no longer warmth around her, but cold. Pain. The light was so bright, it burned against her small brown eyes. Pain. Pressure was being applied to points on her body, as she moved through the air. Pain.
She howled at the injustice of it all as the prodding continued. She dare not open her eyes again, but was at the mercy of the pushing objects that examined every part of her. She didn’t like this. She wanted to go back, back where it was warm, back where it was quiet, back where everything was perfect.
After this abuse, something saw fit to wrap her in something that was very warm. She liked that. Everything was becoming quiet again. She liked that. One last time, she was passed. This time, skin pressed up against hers, soft warm skin. Instinctively, she latched on to the object inserted into her mouth. It tasted good, and she drank until she didn’t want to any more.
She leaned back, and cracked her eyes open just a smidgen. A man and a woman stared down at her with soft smiles on their faces. She yawned, and then fell asleep.
One decade later…
Fia slouched further into her seat. She did not feel well. She used to love school. She did love school, just not the people in it. Mrs. Bertram had read her poem in front of the whole fifth grade class the day before, and she’d been so proud of herself. The other kids were not so kind. A couple of girls had called her “teacher’s pet,” which she knew was not a good thing. They made fun of her clothes and her glasses. They laughed as she grabbed a book at recess instead of a jump rope. They made Fia feel different and weird. She didn’t like it.
“Fia four-eyes,” the girl whispered as she went to sharpen her pencil. Fia’s ears burned. Did everyone think the same way? Did no one like her? No one talked to her during recess except the girls to make fun of her.
She felt like crying. She was completely alone.
She took a deep breath and thought back to her books. The heroes were always brave, even when facing dragons or armies. If Robin Hood could smile at the Sheriff of Nottingham, she could smile at the girls. She didn’t need anyone if she had herself.
When the girl walked back to her desk, Fia smiled at her. The girl gave her a funny face, but Fia didn’t care. She would be Fia the Lionheart. She could be like Joan of Arc and stand up for herself when no one else would. She did not need anyone.
One decade later…
Fia studied her biophysical chemistry textbook carefully. The final was in an hour. She’d been top in the class, but she wanted to get the top final score as well since some stranger had scored two points higher than her on the last test. She ran her finger along each line as her eyes darted rapidly back and forth.
“Hey, do you mind if I sit here?” someone asked, standing above her library table.Fia did not look up. “No, of course not.” Molecules were building and shifting in her head. She needed to concentrate.
“Do you know if he’s gonna ask us about the NMR spectroscopy improvements he talked about during the last lecture?” the guy asked in a subtle accent.
Fia looked up. He was a shy- and geeky-looking kid of some ethnicity she wasn’t sure of. He seemed nervous and jittery, probably overloading on coffee before the final. She’d thought she might’ve seen him in her class, but honestly, she didn’t pay much attention to her fellow students. “He said in that e-mail that it would be included for extra credit,” she answered succinctly before turning back towards the book.
“Oh, yeah. I remember,” he muttered, blushing.
He was silent for a very long time as Fia finished scanning the textbook and moved on to her notes.
“You read fast, Fia,” the guy said, shyly.
“Uh, thanks,” she returned. She did not append a name as she did not know his. “I’m just skimming though.”
“Still,” he said, smiling awkwardly, “It’s impressive.”
She returned his smile, and continued to study as silence reigned once more.
She glanced at her watch. The final started in fifteen minutes. She began to pack up her backpack.
“Uh, Fia?” the guy asked. She turned, raising her eyebrows to show she was listening to the subsequent question that his tone implied.
“Do you want to grab a cup of coffee with me after the final. To, you know, relax?” he asked.
Fia was taken aback. Being a nerd throughout high school and college, too concentrated on studying to notice anything else in the world, no one had approached her thusly before. Her gut reaction was to say, ‘no.’ She had a final the day after tomorrow she should study for. However, he seemed so fragile.
She retrieved a pencil she dropped to the floor on purpose, to give her a moment to think. There, she saw a test had slipped from the guy’s backpack. His name was Hamal Goel, and he had gotten 98% on the last biophysical chemistry test when she had gotten 96%. She had identified her rival, who just asked her out.
“Um, I’m not a terribly big coffee drinker,” she started. His face dropped so suddenly she could hardly believe it was the same person standing in front of her. “But, I like tea.”
“Yeah, they have tea there. So, you wanna come then?” he asked, brimming with hope.
“Sure,” Fia responded. He smiled.
One decade later…
It seemed like a paradox that the only way Fia could find relaxation now was through intense physical pain. She was grimacing fiercely as she placed one foot in front of the other. Her legs were screaming in agony, unwilling to move as she commanded them. She knew she was just managing what would normally be a pitiful jog, but her legs could physically not go any faster. The crowds were cheering, she could see the finish line, but it did not seem to be getting any closer. She wanted to lasso it and pull it towards her.
She pumped her arms, but even they had exhausted her glycogen stores. She wasn’t sure she could keep this up much longer, but she had to because she knew she could.
She stepped through the arch, coughing. She could barely see anymore. She kept walking, keeping her head upright so that no one would attempt to help her like the collapsed runners beside her.
She grabbed a drink, and imbibed greedily, as if she hadn’t had water in years. She ambled around in a circle, attempting to walk off her light-headedness. She began to think again. She needed to find her bag, so she could get home and finish that presentation she was delivering at that cancer seminar in a couple of days.
“Fia Fleetfeet,” someone said from across the crowd control barrier. Hamal waved, distinguishing himself from the faceless crowd. He almost lost balance on his crutches. The sadness on his face showed that those crutches, probably a stress fracture, were the only things keeping him from being on the other side of the barrier. “3:21:46!”
“Hamal, what are you doing here?” she asked softly, her throat still burning and her chest still heaving. Inwardly, she groaned at her time. She wanted so badly to get under 3:20.
“I was signed up, but I got a stress fracture. I couldn’t run, but I figured I would see the finish. But, you were amazing!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, uh, thanks. It’s not that great, really,” she said. “Um, I need to go find my bag.”
“I’ll help you,” he replied enthusiastically.
The idea of the guy on crutches helping her weave through the tight-knit crowds was comical. Perhaps though it was simply the chivalrous gut reaction for him. She remembered their date so many years ago.
“I’ve got it. Don’t worry,” she said quickly.
“Hey, honey. Is this the famous Fia?” a woman had appeared at Hamal’s side. She was a beautiful Asian woman with long black hair and a gentle smile.
“Oh, Fia, this is my fiancée, Geraldine.” Fia spotted the diamond ring on her finger.
“Nice to meet you,” Fia said, “normally I would shake your hand but I’m kinda dripping with sweat here.”
“The pleasure is mine. Hamal told me all about his frustration with the little girl in his class that somehow managed to beat him on all his tests. He said you were working on your PhD?” she asked.
“Finished. I’m officially Fia Karlson, PhD now. I’m presenting my research at a seminar this Tuesday. What about you, Hamal? Are you a doctor yet? And what do you do, Geraldine?” Fia asked.
“Ooh, sounds prestigious. I’m not surprised though,” Hamal said. “I’m a single doctor right now. It’s another two years before I get my MD. Then everyone must call me Dr. Dr. Goel. Same with Geraldine, we met at Penn.”
“Well, congratulations on your marriage and your approaching dual degrees,” Fia said, “But I’ve got to get back to my hotel and pack. My flight is impossibly early tomorrow morning.”
“Do you need a ride?” Geraldine asked. “Our car is not far.”
“No, no, I’m good. Thanks for the offer.” Fia needed to get away. Fatigue had lowered her defenses and a strange feeling was building in her stomach seeing Hamal again, engaged. She didn’t know what it was, but it did not feel good.
Was it that their presence highlighted her complete lack of people in life? Was it that the only guy who found an interest in her had found a stronger interest in another? Was it because it was suddenly hitting her that despite just getting out of her post doc, she was grown up now? She didn’t know.
She waved good-bye and pressed the emotion firmly to the back of her head. She needed to review her presentation more before Tuesday.
One decade later…
Hamal stood by the casket. His face was downturned, his shoulders shuddered after a few breaths. He was the picture of grief as a minister droned on about Geraldine’s short but meaningful life. Fia watched his children, a tall girl and two little boys, hover close to their father. She could sense their confusion and their grief.
As the man finished speaking, the crowd began to churn. People approached the front, offering condolences, spreading flowers, yet Hamal remained an island. He stood isolated from his friends and family by the ocean of grief. His children were squirming.
Fia let the crowds thin before she approached. She stood a foot away for a long time, saying nothing. Hamal continued to stare at the casket which contained what had once been his wife, his one and only.
“I didn’t think she would die. They said her survival rate was low, but I thought nothing could take her. Not even cancer,” Hamal said softly under his breath. “You understand cancer though. You know what it’s like.” His shoulders shook violently as he fought tears.
“I’m trying to understand it,” Fia started. She paused, and looked at the man. His hair was grey, his eyes were red, his face was pale, and large bags hung under his eyes. “Hamal, let me take your kids home. I know you need a moment to yourself. If you need me, remember that I am here for you.”
“Thanks, Fia. Thank you,” he said. Fia placed her hand briefly on his shoulder, giving it a squeeze before turning to his children.
“Fei, Satesh, Dominique, I’m going to take you home. Your dad needs a second to himself, okay?” Fia asked, approaching the children in black. Fei held her two brothers close to her, protectively. She looked towards her father, receiving a nod to affirm the Fia’s story.
Fia walked them to her car. Fei supported her younger brothers with a stoicism Fia had never seen in an eight-year-old.
“Fia, wait,” Hamal was jogging towards them. “Fia, I want to work in your lab. I want to help find a cure. Can you get me in?”
Hamal looked so desperate, so fragile. Fia thought back twenty years ago to the boy who had asked her out to coffee. “Hamal. Take a week. Think things out. If you still want in, give me a call, and I’ll see what I can work out. ”
Hamal nodded stiffly, and wandered, dejected back to her grave.
“Will my dad be okay?” Fei asked, watching her father, lost to grief.
“Yeah, just give him a bit,” Fia said. “He’s a strong man, but he loved with all his heart.” That was his mistake. Never let anyone close, and they will never hurt you.
One decade later…
Fia leaned over her microscope. The cancerous cells looked like a plague, growing and consuming their brethren around them. It was the zombie apocalypse of the cellular world, she though glibly.
The door to the lab opened, but Fia did not look up, so consumed in her work. “Fia, its 2 AM, what are you still doing here?”
Hamal was standing with a batch of cell cultures in the doorway. He looked as he always did, exhausted. A house full of teenagers and a heavy research load had not been terribly kind to the man. “Could I not ask you the same question? And I don’t have kids to take care of,” she responded defensively. She did not like people intruding on her private lab time. She felt at peace in the seclusion; it was her home.
“Dominique and Satesh are at a mathematics camp, and Fei left for MIT a couple of days ago. I needed to come in because I started growing my cultures late. What’s your excuse? Have you found a way to sleep while researching?” he joked. He sat down beside her, running his fingers through his hair in a tired sort of way.
“Sleep? What is this ‘sleep’ of which you speak?”she teased in turn. “I never notice the hour, but it is nice to have the lab to myself. I can steal all the NMR and FPLC time I want.” She turned back to her slides, but he didn’t move.
“Did you think it would be like this?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Life. I guess I always pictured myself going out and saving Africa or something like that. I thought I would travel the world with the love of my life. I thought I would go sky-diving and rock-climbing, but it seemed like there was never time, you know? So far, life has just been rather pedestrian,” he sighed.
“Life is not over yet, Hamal. You can still travel, sky-dive, and rock-climb if you want. Think of what you do have: amazing kids, a rewarding career, and good friends. And what about the Nobel Prize we are sure to receive within a few years? That’s not pedestrian,” she smiled.
He laughed dryly. They were always sure to receive a Nobel Prize within a few years. “True, Fia. I do have a really good friend. Thanks for being there for me.” He smiled at her, and there was a flash of light in his eyes Fia had not seen for years. Never before had Fia felt so close to him, yet incredibly far away.
“No problem, Hamal.”
One decade later…
Everything was glitz and glamour. For the first time since she could remember, Fia was wearing a dress. It was at the insistence of her younger colleagues, who seemed to think if she was getting a Nobel Prize, she must do it in style. One of them had offered a necklace to borrow and another had done Fia’s hair. Fia felt like this was all overly contrived. It was funny that this had been her goal since she was just a girl, but now, here, it felt so trivial and inconsequential. Her research had been published and implemented years ago. The results were there. This was just someone giving her an arbitrary gold star for her efforts.It was just a ceremony full of puffed-up, pompous elites, drizzled in champagne and drowning in their own egos. It meant nothing. She had once worshipped some of the scientists in the room, but upon actual contact, they were less than she made them out to be. It was her own fault, but she was still disappointed.
She put on a smile though, as she attempted not to break her ankle in shoes a colleague had insisted she wear. It was strange that in a room full of people, she could feel utterly alone.
“Dr. Fia Karlson, Nobel Laureate,” Hamal said from behind her.
“Hamal, when did you get here? I thought you weren’t going to come because of Fei’s conference? How did you get here?” she asked in quick succession. This had been a solo journey, and the sharp jolt from introspection unnerved her. She felt so silly anyways, dressed up like a doll; it did not take much to set her at unease.
“Really, no ‘it’s so great so see you?’” he smiled, and checked his watch “I got her forty-three minutes ago. I wasn’t going to come, but Fei saw me, and told me to fly here, which answers your third question.”He seemed exhausted, but exuberant. It reminded Fia of the look he had after a long day in the lab.
They said nothing for a while. His smile was so contagious, Fia found herself grinning with him, in whatever ecstasy he had found. She laughed, realizing this.
“What are you so happy about? My Atlantic journey hardly left me in stitches,” she joked. He began to get slightly nervous, his happiness, more subdued. He looked at her again. His eyes flashed with youth. She saw the boy from forty years ago who asked her to coffee. She saw the man who grew from him, with brilliant children and research to his name. She saw her own life reflected in his eyes, the years of academic isolation in search for this moment, in which she found only emptiness. Somehow though, this didn’t depress her. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt at ease, just staring back at Hamal.
He closed the distance between them and pressed his lips to her. Fia could not think. She did not regularly touch people, no hugs, much less kisses. Her personal bubble was shattered at this outflow of emotion. It rocked the solidity that her detached life had offered. Her mind went through an infinite circuit, attempting to find some grounds to respond.
Inwardly, she catalogued her physiological response: increased pulse, more perceptive sensation, a presence of heat, flush. She could not catalogue her feelings however. She felt like a young girl again, awash in the human experience with no compass to guide her. Science was not like this.
A moment later, he drew away, and surveyed her carefully. She was flummoxed. She said nothing.
“I love you, Fia.” He looked slightly worried now, noting her lack of affectionate reaction in turn. She stared at his eyes, and saw the flash of youth, the flash of energy, the flash of brilliance. She saw the boy, the man, the scientist who challenged her to be better. She saw her equal and her rival, her friend, and her colleague.
She hardly knew the words as she spoke them. They bubbled spontaneously to her lips. “I love you too, Hamal.” Hesitantly, and tenderly, she returned his kiss.
She did not feel alone.
One decade later…
“The test is next Thursday, so I will be posting the tests and answers from last year online. Richard will also be holding a review session Wednesday at 8:00 in the Meitner Building, room 324. I’m always in my lab from about seven in the morning until seven at night, if you want to get a hold of me personally,” Fia informed the students in various degrees of slumber. The one detriment to have a class at 7:00 am was that no one seemed to be awake for it.
She packed away her laptop as the students trickled from the lecture hall. She glanced at her watch. She’d been letting her cells incubate since six, so they probably had another hour or two. Perhaps she could start on the paperwork she’d been putting off.
A student ran back at full-speed. Somewhat amused, Fia gave a slight smile wondering what had animated the young man who was drooling as of a few minutes ago.
“Dr. Karlson,” he gasped, “Fei Goel called. She says. You’re cell’s off. Something’s wrong. With Dr. Goel.”
Fia lost the smile instantly. “What, Jason? What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Stroke,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” Time slowed. The ‘I’m so sorry,’ is what caught Fia’s attention. He was expressing condolences in a manner reserved for a loved one’s passing. But Hamal was so healthy, so strong. He couldn’t have --.
She didn’t want to think the words. She threw her bag onto her back and whipped out her cell phone. As you began to jog, she dialed Fei. She was running, without realizing it. Her heart was thumping. She didn’t want to think anymore. She wanted to escape.
Fei answered. “Fia. He’s gone.” Fei said mechanically. The pain was incredibly palpable in her voice despite her attempts to subvert it. Fei was trying to be so strong even though she had loved her father with all her heart. They had been so close.
Fia took one breath as she grinded to a halt. She took another. This was not the woman she was. Running away was not what she did.
“Fei, I’m coming over to see you. Where are you? Where are Satesh and Dominique? I will arrange everything. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of Hypatia and Avogadro for the weekend,” Fia began planning. She would need to contact Hamal’s attorney to get things settled about the will. She would have to get to the hospital he had been taken to and sign a bunch of papers.
It had scared her. That one moment where she felt herself come apart, because someone was not there. She was about to let Fei down, let everyone down, when they needed her most. She let herself get too close to Hamal. The coffee boy. The cancer colleague. The man who loved her. She almost felt like she needed him.
She shook her head. She needed no one, but people needed her. “I’m here for you, Fei. I’ll stay on the phone.”
One decade later…
Fia wheezed as she took another step. The hill behind the university was very steep. The grass grew up to her waist, and the sun warmed her back. She adjusted her hat, and continued to take deliberate steps to avoid breaking her ankle on the pebbles crunching underfoot.
Fei worried about her, living by herself and continuing to climb mountains. Fia didn’t like people to worry about her. She didn’t worry about herself, so why should others? Fia did not need anyone.
She paused, sitting upon a stump of a tree and surveying the valley. The world looked so small, so quiet. She saw the trucks, cars, and bicycles busy about their paths, and she couldn’t help but be amused as she watched. It was the same feeling of detached wonder as she got when examining a colony of ants. It was a group composed of so many busy bodies so intent on the goal in front of them that they could not see how little they were. They were moving things from a to b, because they had the goal to move things from a to b.
So what was important? It couldn’t be just moving from a to b, as upon her perch, she saw how silly it was. In the grand scheme of things, objects moved from a to b as frequently as from b to a. Nothing was gained.
Was it to have little happy ant children with a little ant spouse, as her mother had once told her? She could not think it was. It just made more little ants moving from a to b, with no real purpose.
Was it changing the ant world? Was it building little ant hives and new ant tunnels? She thought of her research, research on making ants live longer, research that someone probably would’ve done if she hadn’t, research by ants for ants.
She rubbed her chin.
Perhaps nothing mattered, in the grand scheme of things. In the long run, we are all dead, after all. The universe does not care of the intents of little ants on a little planet. The universe did not have a law of right like it had a law of gravity.
What mattered is simply what one determined to matter.
The little ants that spent all day moving from a to b were no better or worse than ants having more ants or ants building tunnels. It was just what the ants wanted to do. It was just whatever the ants needed to do to be happy.
Fia thought back. Happy. When was she happy?
She was happy when she was researching. She was happy walking in the park. She was happy volunteering at the elementary school. She was happy when she was with her adopted family of Fei, Satesh, and Dominique. She was happy when she was with Hamal.
When she got close to people, when she opened up, Fia had gotten hurt. It was an ever-present problem in life. But, she now realized she was glad she had done it anyways. That one decade when Hamal had loved her, she would not trade it, even after the pain it caused. She shouldn’t be afraid of feeling.
As she reached her hand to rub her chin again, she felt tears on her cheek. She was crying for a man ten years dead, a man she had never cried for before. But she had loved him, and it did not make her weak. It made her life worth living because it made her happy.
She smiled. She loved her ant world and the ants in it. It didn’t matter to the universe, but she was happy. That was important to her.
She stood slowly, her old body groaning slowly against the change. It was not as limber as in yesteryear. She began to climb again, slowly. She thought of the people she had known in life, the things she had done.
Her left arm began to tingle. She was probably clenching her walking stick too tightly. She loosened her grip and continued. Her chest felt tight; maybe she should slow down.
She tripped, but landed softly in the thick grass. Her breath was shallow and quick. She looked up into the heavens, and realized with a start, she was dying.
She was just an ant squished underfoot. But she was a happy ant.
Her eyes closed. Her chest stilled. She smiled.