Mending Bad Blood

Alex Shapiro

© Copyright 2001 by Alex Shapiro


Photo of Alex Shapiro

Despite the burning rays of overheated light, Ann’s mind kept measuring and calculating, cross-checking references, jotting down notes. Her fingertips cuddled the keys, stroked in the updated values and Ann’s face relaxed into a faint smile, watched the newest version of the complex database. One at a time, numbers and words scribbled on color-coded notebooks tripped their way into files with links to related AIDS research sites. As dawns paled into daylight and swamp heat gave in to haunted nights, Ann’s eyes, blistered with fatigue, toggled between the glittering computer screen and the intense snowy light of the microscope field.

“Just pretend you found the golden egg,” Ann smiled to herself, eyes sparkled with hope for the impossible, and, for a moment, her sight stalled on the pale liquid resting in the finger-thin glass. “It’s a long way though … to a true cure for a dormant enemy,” Ann thought aloud, as her mind started to hum a melody from an old war movie.

A splashy message blinked on the screen, reminded her about the oncoming meeting, made her frown. Instead, she sighed, swallowed the lump inside her throat. Breath became shallow, her mind numb, the pressure … waiting a sniff away from her chest. Ann dragged answering all the whys and ifs, though she needed the funds to sponsor her research. She had to survive the meeting, but how could she lure the money when she didn’t have the miracle cure for AIDS, nor could she vouch for positive results of her test drug.

Not yet, but it’s worth the try, she thought, I would need, eventually, a Guinea pig … she continued to dream, but decided to deal with that particular problem at its own time.

On her way out, Ann made an exception and allowed the lab door to shutter closed, as she adjusted the knee-high stack of documents between her arms and chin, in an attempt to balance her wiggly walk to her office. She made it half way down the hallway, arms numb, feet sunk into the corridor, when Andy Brown approached Ann, took her by surprise demanding justifications, and she found it impossible to refuse her boss. Andy, otherwise known as A.D. Brown, was a mild, middle-aged man, with snappy gray hair and thick glasses, and a faded smile stamped on his face.

“Miss Smith, can I talk to you for a moment, please?” his words glued chewing-gum to her shoe-soles.

“A.D., do you need me?” Ann mumbled, relieved to spot her office door, longing for a smooth escape. She’d always considered A.D. a nice, though helpless person, but, again, she didn’t know him well enough and never had the desire to do so.

I don’t have time for your endless speeches today, A.D., a tiny voice tickled her mind, numbed her throat.

“Miss Smith,” he continued, closing the two of them inside his office. “You work hard and well,” Andy muttered, rolled his chair backwards, just enough for his jean legs to reach the lip of the mahogany desk.

Ann adjusted the stack of folders on the floor, beside a chair, watched him carefully, her back aligned with the wall. “Any problems?” she stared at her boss, her ghostly eyes bright with surprise.

“The University can’t afford to pay anybody overtime,” Andy spat the out. “You work late hours, you are on your own. Understood?” his tone shifted from inquiring to threatening. “Do you need extra help?” One fluffy brow raised above the golden frame of his glasses.

“No help necessary,” she muttered, “thank you, though,” Ann continued, hissed quietly. “Anything wrong?” she had to ask.

“Do you think something is wrong, Miss Smith?” A.D. was quick to reply. “I’ve been told you take care of personal business during working hours … then put in overtime to finish your work. You don’t expect to be paid for your inability to do the job right, do you?” His second eyebrow reached the high level of its pair. “What’s the deal?” Andy sniffed. “I’d like to hear your side of the story.” His smile frosted on his face. “For the future, keep your nose where it belongs, into your assignments.”

“Why should I tell you anything? Are your spies getting behind?” Ann felt the blood warming up her cheeks. “I can show you … ”

“No!” Andy’s voice sliced her thoughts in half. “I don’t need to see anything yet, but you may need to give it a thought,” he suggested in a muffled tone. “We need to watch our spending, Miss Smith,” Andy advised, shuffling the eye level stack of papers in front of him, piled up in a wavy tower. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” He turned in place with his chair, made her dizzy.

“I’m working on a test drug that can prevent T-cells from being infected by the virus ... it may be only a temporary success, I’m not sure yet,” she defended her work, while her eyes spilled tears. “I think I don’t need to explain the process to you,” Ann continued, “about the latent infected T-cells that can casually stroll inside your body for years while you keep living the happy-go-lucky kind of life, thinking that everything is hunky-dory. Then, one day, you catch a cold and can’t get rid of it, and when you finally go to check it out, you discover the impossible. Yeah, the impossible becomes possible, and you are told in a very business-like tone that you are HIV positive or, even worse, that you have full blown AIDS. I need more time to see how the lab cultures come out. There may be a possibility to trick the virus and stop it from attaching to other T-cells … if we only catch it early enough …” she sighed, exhausted by fear and anger. “But we’d have to try the test drug first, on healthy volunteers, or, even better, on those showing first symptoms. All those people, sentenced to a slow death, may finally have a chance ... ” Ann gulped a mouthful of air, found herself staring into Andy’s glazed eyes. “I have the complete documentation to support my research and present it during the meeting … or afterward, your choice. Either way, I need the funds for this project,” she concluded. “So, what do you say?” Ann asked, annoyed by his staring at the faded shadow above her low cut T-shirt. “I don’t believe you heard a word I’ve just said.” She looked, hopeless, at Andy’s skinny grin.

“Can’t give you any names,” he snapped when Ann straightened up on her feet, a rainbow of folders in her arms. “It wouldn’t be professional to do so, now, would it?” The smirk on his face ripped through her soul. “You are free to go,” he waved at her, sinking a pointed nose into thick textbooks.

 “Good luck with your Ph. D. studying sir,” she muttered, then left his office.

Like everybody else in the research center, she knew Andy was studying during working hours, desperate to put his hands on the doctorate degree. She’d never encourage any of the gossip and could care less, especially when she had her own business to attend to, but she couldn’t take his backstabbing. Not anymore.

“Spies! On me!” Ann hissed. She’d seen the signs, although never bothered to give them a closer look.

Ann held her breath all the way to the safety of her own office. Once inside, she locked herself inside, and worked frantically at organizing the material, fresh from the lab, not wanting the pages, still warm from the printer, to catch a cold.

Several hours later, she stepped inside the mahogany sculptured conference room, her mind tensed, but alive, her face relaxed into a sparkling smile that could melt the Antarctic snow coat.

Ann nodded at the stiffed faces, lined up in cushioned chairs, made herself comfortable by her laptop and signaled John, her assistant, to dim the lights. He was to support her during the presentation.

“Afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Ann started, handing out folders with the main points of the meeting, research data completed, her experiment results and comments, included.

She moved softly around the room, her body, waving slightly in between the chairs, hands brushing gently, every now and then, on John’s scrubbed shirt.

Ann started her speech and clicked through the first snapshots. The coat choked her, broiling her skin underneath its silky material, drying her throat a bit too much, but she had to suffer through it. Drug or no drug, she had to present herself like a businesswoman to attract her success … and the research funds.

Her fingers cold as frozen margaritas, managed to click through the simulation program.

“Step A,” her voice punched the quiet, darkened room, like Cape Cod the Atlantic Ocean. “Attachment phase,” Ann cleared her throat, felt as if jailed alive in a cold grave. “HIV enters the bloodstream and attaches itself to the T-cell surface. In order to successfully bond, the virus has to connect with two different entry points, the receptor and co-receptor.” The mouse pointer highlighted the two names on the screen. “The detachment drug, this is the work-name I use in my research,” she explained, “will make these two entry points invisible to the virus, as long as the drug is ingested at regular intervals. Of course, don’t underestimate the rest of the cocktail, patients still need to take. If patients forget to take the new drug, they should do so as soon as possible, otherwise, the gap becomes too long, enough for the entry point to become visible again. I’m talking a matter of hours, but need to do more experiments on that.”

Ann checked each of the glacial faces staring numb and dead at her, then continued simulating the rest of the HIV reproduction, pointing out possibilities of restraining the formation of new viruses.

“If we stop the HIV at the entry point, none of these,” she started the slide-show of HIV formation and reproduction steps, “none of these has to happen,” Ann sighed silently. “Thank you for your attention,” she managed a sad smile. “I’d be glad to answer any questions,” she offered, eyeing her assistant and introducing him to the staring crowd.

While John helped her hand out more statistics, she answered their inquiries about prices and licenses.

Andy thanked her with a skinny smile, winked at her. “I want to have a talk with you in my office, first thing Monday morning, understood?” His hand brushed the back of her neck.

She nodded with half a smile and started to gather her papers as the others left the room.

“I’ll stay and help you Ann,” John’s voice whispered into her ear, his breath too close and too hot on her skin.

“I’ll manage Johnny, you enjoy your weekend now,” she replied, eyes glued on the papers, as Ann waited for the door to snap shut behind the young assistant.

“It’s done now,” she sighed and sneaked her way out of the mahogany room.

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