The results sat on her coffee table, face down, as if they could be unseen. The results had sat on the same coffee table the entire week prior, in the sealed envelope because she couldn't bring herself to look. Various things (mugs, magazines, plates of food, etc.) had been placed around it, as if she had been slowly incorporating the envelope into her environment before opening it. Now that she had, the state of her apartment had changed. The clutter on the table had been cleaned. As had her entire living room, kitchen, bathroom and home office. Natalie herself was on the couch, in her flannels, cradling a stemless wine glass in one hand and a pint of ice cream in her lap. She hadn't touched the latter; the former was nearly empty.
She was thirty-six years old, doing basic arithmetic in her head. Simple math, unpleasant outcomes. twenty-two years, that's what separated her current age from the age her mother had been when she'd wasted away. A childhood of piano and language lessons, vibrant homeschooling and trips to life science and art museums had left her with the fondest memories of the woman. A single mother of two, Nadine had sent her oldest daughter, Abigail, to the best private schools in Chicago on scholarships while she worked on her own PhD and eventual tenure in art history. Natalie had been a mistake, albeit a welcome one, after the first had been raised. Nadine's shot at full professorship had been sacrificed for quality time with Natalie, a delayed effort to correct the mistakes she had made with Abigail.
Nadine had turned fifty-seven when Natalie was eighteen; she had never quite reached fifty-eight.
Abigail was meant to be the medical doctor, and that she had become. She went by her married name, Abigail Wright, and held an prestigious position at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Montana. Natalie spoke with her twice a year — a phone call on each of their birthdays. The twenty-years that separated them in age made Abigail nearly the age their mother had been when she died.
Natalie contemplated calling her as she finished her glass of wine and poured the second. She had learned that her sister's research interests had pivoted drastically from her original specialty in endocrinology after their mother's bizarre illness. It hadn't been until Natalie had settled on disease pathology and epidemiology after her undergraduate degree in French that she realized why. Fundamentally, both of Nadine's daughters' careers had shifted after she had died as a direct result of that death. Abigail's because she had, perhaps more than her young sister, suspected the cause; Natalie because she hadn't and wanted to know.
When she found out, the implications had driven her to a divorce and a life of subtle, persistent, fear.
She drank the second glass of wine quickly, only wincing when she finished the final gulp. In the next moment, she picked up her phone and searched her contacts for Abigail's name. She thumbed past it — thinking of the emotional distance they shared and how it matched both their age and physical distance. She came upon Michael's name in the list, and thought about how he'd be sitting down to dinner with Carla and their daughters, bypassing it with the usual pang of acceptance.
The entry she stopped on caught her by surprise, but not much. Their awkward chat that morning had been just that, awkward, but it had been nice to see him again. He was also very unlikely to be sitting down to eat, since he probably had forgotten the time, and so she thumbed the buttons until the call had been placed.
He answered, much quicker than she had anticipated, with a simple, "Connor."
"Stephen, what do you know about Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease?"
There was a pause, as if he were trying to determine if she was about to fly off to parts unknown to deal with what was called - when transmitted between one person and another - a freak accident and what was called - when passed between parent and child via a cruel genetic lottery - a tragedy.
He settled for a soft, perhaps even unsettled, "Are you dealing with a case?"
Natalie looked at the results of the genetic test she had ordered nearly four months prior. They sat upside down on her coffee table, but she had already read them and they could not be unseen, "It's a personal project."