Day nine, Institute of Physics, Theoretical Physics lab

Physics 132 fills Mylene’s lungs with sawdust, balloons electromagnetic field equations in her ribs until the last hurried scribbles of chalk on a board (“Trivial!” Professor Cruz exclaims, exasperated and glorious in her covering of white dust as she tosses the brittle stub down, and the class laughs even as they scatter, so much torn bits of paper, to the hot dry wind) propel her to the lab. There she can breathe again, and does: inhales, breath swimming in the rich burnt darkness of fresh-made coffee warming the lab’s cold air, the chemical sour-sweetness of whiteboard markers overlaid on the equations covering the walls.

There’s a group of PhD students running a seminar when she arrives; they don’t even see her as she squeezes past their benches. She heads to the computer area: there’s Pat and Jess, hunched over the patterns of their simulations, unraveling bits of code, trying to make sense of the graphs. Rae at the end of a long table, the insides of books and notebooks spread out like some grotesque dissection of paper corpses before her.

Rae looks up, grins. “About time,” she says.

When Mylene was new to the lab and very eager to please, she would tie her tongue into knots of explanation and retort just for Rae, trying to justify, hoping to amuse. For months she’d been terrified the theoretical physics group would withdraw their invitation because she’d forget a factor in a Legendre expansion, leave out a negative sign in the next step of a transform. Or forget to number an equation: we number our equations, Rae had told her, the first time they met, this intimidating post-graduate student and the wide-eyed undergrad still clutching Arfken to her chest, so we remember. Do it again.

Now she only laughs, tells Rae, “Move over.”

Rae smells like dama de noche and black coffee, like blood beating and citrus freshness of blue-green veins. Mylene works in silence, inhaling the scents, human nose’s recognition of flowers struggling to slow the growth of other, newer senses smoldering like embers at the back of her throat.

She is so hungry.

“We’re going out for isaw at Kalay later,” Rae says. “Once the seminar’s over. Wanna come?”

Saliva fills Mylene’s mouth, hot and sweet. Yes, intestines grilled to smoky richness, burnt caramel crusting over yielding flex of organ, sear of salt. Yes, yes, yes. “You guys go without me,” she says. Oh promise of heat, oh how her tongue aches with want, so much want. “Maybe next time.”

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