Inside the car an awkward silence grew heavy, a void interrupted every 20 minutes by the professor’s cell phone. He apologized to Vivienne, turned on his bluetooth headphones, and talked to a variety of people, giving advice and commands. It sounded serious, and Vivienne tried to imagine the life of a scientist. It was much easier than she thought it would be. In fact, she seemed to be able to envision a laboratory filled with all kinds of scientific tools: test tubes, beakers, bunsen burners and all sorts of apparatus. She pictured a dark room with a chalk board at one end, filled with scribbled equations, greek letters, and geometric figures—fingertips coated with calcified dust. The detail she conjured up is impressive, and as she delved deeper into her imagination, she felt like she could even hear the sounds. Between phone calls, the vacuum of silence inside the Citroën was filled by the phantasmal clangor of lab equipment clattering on a metal table, and a series of voices that rose out of the nothingness into her right ear. One voice in particular dominated. It was an old voice, deep and raspy, speaking in a melodic language. It was talking to her. “Apó poú eísai?”
She shook her head, trying to dislodge the thought.
“Is everything all right?” She looked over to see a concerned professor. His normally stoic face was long and tight, a thread pulled from a frayed edge. She hadn’t been paying much attention to the one-sided telephone conversations he’s been having, but it was now clear that he was worried about his research. Despite her need to tell him about her auditory hallucination, she desired more than anything to help him feel better.
“Yes.” She licked her lips. “How about you? You okay?”
“Well, to be honest, there are some problems in my laboratory. It seems I should not have left my assistant in charge.”
“What happened?” She placed her small hand onto his knee.
“It’s not that serious,” he lied, and exhaled deeply. The silence grew. “Actually, it is fairly serious.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Very well. I suppose it will help to get a few things off my mind.” They passed a road sign that pointed to the next town, and the sun beamed obliquely behind them, reflecting off the mirrors. “As it turns out, my assistant, Marius has fired some of my technicians. They called me to complain. Each of them claims that Marius has gone on some sort of maniacal quest to better me. They say that he is diverting the research completely.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Well, for one thing, he’s not a scientist.”
“No, he’s an actor.” There was a long pause, and when the professor looked over he saw Vivienne holding her hand to her right temple, eyes closed, he offered his explanation. “I hired him originally to impersonate me at conferences. You see, dear girl, I have an extreme phobia of being in front of an audience. It frightens me so deeply that I forget everything I want to say. Hiring Marius really allowed me to join in conversation with the international community.”
“Marius is a good man. It’s just that he gets carried away. I’m sure he has a valid reason for doing this.”
“You don’t seem so sure.”
“Well, to be honest, I haven’t been able to get in touch with him at all.”
The silence resumed.