Byron sticks his head in the office Friday afternoon, just as I’m getting ready to submit, and says, “I think you should add me.”
I look up from the screen. “To what?”
His fingers drum against the edge of the door. The rhythm is odd and aimless, scattered rain on dry grass. “To the manuscript.”
He must be joking. I shake my head and laugh. “What, to the acknowledgments?”
“No.” Byron’s smile has too many teeth. Something tightens in my throat. “As an author.”
“But it’s my thesis.” I hate how it leaves my mouth: blurted, sudden, the end of it curling up like the corners of a paper set aflame. As if even those words are worth little more than ash.
“We all worked on the data.” That’s what it means to share a lab with one major grant: all three of Engel’s grad students losing ourselves in collecting data, entering, organizing, analyzing. Hour upon hour hunched over the keyboard, row after row of numbers ticking down the spreadsheet. Giselle and I don’t talk about how Byron liked to take two hours to get coffee from the café across campus, or how he’d stretch and groan and throw his backpack over his shoulder the instant Dr. Engel left for the day, flashing us a grin and a nonchalant You ladies are so hardworking, I’ll have to try extra hard to keep up tomorrow!
“Come on, Meredith.” Byron shifts, leans one hip against the door. His words form the same shape, sharply angled, spotted haunches ready to spring. “We’re a team. You know how much Bruce likes that.”
Bruce. I’ve never called our adviser that; neither has Giselle. But Byron can, because he is the one Dr. Engel always turns to first, when he asks for updates on our projects at the weekly lab meeting. He is the one whose laughter echoes behind the closed doors of the professor’s corner office. He is the one Dr. Engel invites over to his house for Sunday morning football, cheering and drinking and trading stories while Giselle and I do one more push in the lab.
I look down at my screen, the title page with Meredith D. Parker, M.A. & Bruce K. Engel, Ph.D. at its heart. This is mine. I wrote it, I defended it, I revised it for submission. I ran it down and suffocated three thousand words of it because that was the only suggestion Dr. Engel gave me, the draft returned almost entirely clean, scrubbed with the antiseptic of indifference.
I mentioned football, once. He asked if my boyfriend watched it.
“Well, Meredith?” Byron’s smile doesn’t fade, lips pulled back from a mouthful of white. “You know how Bruce hates conflict in his lab.”
There is no wildness in his face but it sets my heart jumping all the same, a rapid thump-thump-thump in my chest. Zero to sixty in three seconds, dry grass crunching beneath my paws, I’ve run all this way, sprinted and leapt with envious agility and finally clamped down on my quarry, but I don’t get to eat. Not now, because Byron is here, with a sharp-toothed grin and a wanting in his eyes, and I should fight for my prize but the savannah is dry and ruthless, full of fist bumps and sports talk and Bruces.
I camouflage well and run fast, but the territory has always been theirs.
I swallow, look away. “I’ll add you as third author.”
Byron picks at his nails. “How about second? It’s Bruce’s grant, so he should be last anyway.”
In another time and place, would the words be inhuman, a growling, maniacal cackle?
“Great.” Byron straightens up and nods. “I’m glad we’re a team, Meredith.”
As he turns and struts away, I move the mouse, place the cursor between the two names, and sigh like wind through long, golden grass.
Byron Mills, M.A.
In the sudden silence of the office, I hear tearing of flesh and crunching of bone. Blood drips from his snout and snarling jaws, echoes of laughter through the sweeping plains.