The love Hypothesis by ALI HAZELWOOD ,Chapter 2

HYPOTHESIS: Any rumor regarding my love life will spread with a speed that is directly proportional to my desire to keep said rumor a secret.
Olive Smith was a rising third-year Ph.D. student in one of the best biology departments in the country, one that housed more than one hundred grads and what often felt like several million majoring undergrads. She had no idea what the exact number of faculty was, but judging from the mailboxes in the copy room she’d say that a safe guess was: too many. Therefore, she reasoned that if she’d never had the misfortune of interacting with Adam Carlsen in the two years before The Night (it had been only a handful of days since the kissing incident, but Olive already knew that she’d think of last Friday as The Night for the rest of her life), it was entirely possible that she might be able to finish grad school without crossing paths with him ever again. In fact, she was fairly sure that not only did Adam Carlsen have no idea who she was, but he also had no desire to learn—and had probably already forgotten all about what happened. Unless, of course, she was catastrophically wrong and he did end up filing a Title IX lawsuit. In which case she supposed that she would see him again, when she pleaded guilty in federal court. Olive figured that she could waste her time fretting about legal fees, or she could focus on what were more pressing issues. Like the approximately five hundred slides she had to prepare for the neurobiology class that she was slated to TA in the fall semester, which was starting in less than two weeks.
Or the note Malcolm had left this morning, telling her he’d seen a cockroach scurry under the credenza even though their apartment was already full of traps. Or the most crucial one: the fact that her research project had reached a critical point and she desperately needed to find a bigger, significantly richer lab to carry out her experiment. Otherwise, what could very well become a groundbreaking, clinically relevant study might end up languishing on a handful of petri dishes stacked in the crisper drawer of her fridge. Olive opened her laptop with half a mind to google “Organs one can live without” and “How much cash for them” but got sidetracked by the twenty new emails she’d received while busy with her lab animals. They were almost exclusively from predatory journals, Nigerian prince wannabes, and one glitter company whose newsletter she’d signed up for six years ago to get a free tube of lipstick. Olive quickly marked them as read, eager to go back to her experiments, and then noticed that one message was actually a reply to something she had sent. A reply from . . . Holy crap. Holy crap. She clicked on it so hard she almost sprained her pointer finger.
Today, 3:15 p.m.
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]
SUBJECT: Re: Pancreatic Cancer Screening Project
Your project sounds good. I’ll be visiting Stanford in about two weeks. Why don’t we chat then?
Tom Benton, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Biological Sciences, Harvard University
Her heart skipped a beat. Then it started galloping. Then it slowed down to a crawl. And then she felt her blood pulsate in her eyelids, which couldn’t be healthy, but— Yes. Yes! She had a taker. Almost. Probably? Maybe. Definitely maybe. Tom Benton had said “good.” He had said that it sounded “good.” It had to be a “good” sign, right? She frowned, scrolling down to reread the email she’d sent him several weeks earlier.
July 7, 8:19 a.m.
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]
SUBJECT: Pancreatic Cancer Screening Project
Dr. Benton,
My name is Olive Smith, and I am a Ph.D. student in the biology department of Stanford University. My research focuses on pancreatic cancer, in particular on finding noninvasive, affordable detection tools that could lead to early treatment and increase survival rates. I have been working on blood biomarkers, with promising results. (You can read about my preliminary work in the peer-reviewed paper I have attached. I have also submitted more recent, unpublished findings to this year’s Society for Biological Discovery conference; acceptance is pending but see the attached abstract.) The next step would be to carry out additional studies to determine the feasibility of my test kit.
Unfortunately my current lab (Dr. Aysegul Aslan’s, who is retiring in two years) does not have the funding or the equipment to allow me to proceed. She is encouraging me to find a larger cancer research lab where I could spend the next academic year to collect the data I need. Then I would return to Stanford to analyze and write up the data. I am a huge fan of the work you have published on pancreatic cancer, and I was wondering whether there might be a possibility to carry out my work in your lab at Harvard.
I am happy to talk more in detail about my project if you are interested.
Olive Smith
Ph.D. Candidate
Biology Department, Stanford University
If Tom Benton, cancer researcher extraordinaire, came to Stanford and gave Olive ten minutes of his time, she could convince him to help her out with her research predicament! Well . . . maybe. Olive was much better at actually doing research than at selling its importance to others. Science communication and public speaking of any sort were definitely her big weaknesses. But she had a chance to show Benton how promising her results were. She could list the clinical benefits of her work, and she could explain how little she required to turn her project into a huge success. All she needed was a quiet bench in a corner of his lab, a couple hundred of his lab mice, and unlimited access to his twenty-million-dollar electron microscope. Benton wouldn’t even notice her. Olive headed for the break room, mentally writing an impassioned speech on how she was willing to use his facilities only at night and limit her oxygen consumption to less than five breaths per minute. She poured herself a cup of stale coffee and turned around to find someone scowling right behind her. She startled so hard that she almost burned herself. “Jesus!” She clutched her chest, took a deep breath, and held tighter onto her Scooby-Doo mug. “Anh. You scared the shit out of me.” “Olive.” It was a bad sign. Anh never called her Olive—never, unless she was reprimanding her for biting her nails to the quick or for having vitamin gummies for dinner. “Hey! How was your—” “The other night.” Dammit. “—weekend?”
“Dr. Carlsen.” Dammit, dammit, dammit. “What about him?” “I saw the two of you together.” “Oh. Really?” Olive’s surprise sounded painfully playacted, even to her own ears. Maybe she should have signed up for drama club in high school instead of playing every single sport available. “Yes. Here, in the department.” “Oh. Cool. Um, I didn’t see you, or I’d have said hi.” Anh frowned. “Ol. I saw you. I saw you with Carlsen. You know that I saw you, and I know that you know that I saw you, because you’ve been avoiding me.” “I have not.” Anh gave her one of her formidable no-bullshit looks. It was probably the one she used as president of the student senate, as head of the Stanford Women in Science Association, as director of outreach for the Organization of BIPOC Scientists. There was no fight Anh couldn’t win. She was fearsome and indomitable, and Olive loved this about her—but not right now. “You haven’t answered any of my messages for the past two days. We usually text every hour.” They did. Multiple times. Olive switched the mug to her left hand, for no reason other than to buy some time. “I’ve been . . . busy?” “Busy?” Anh’s eyebrow shot up. “Busy kissing Carlsen?” “Oh. Oh, that. That was just . . .” Anh nodded, as if to encourage her to finish the sentence. When it became obvious that Olive couldn’t, Anh continued for her.
“That was—no offense, Ol—but that was the most bizarre kiss I have ever seen.” Calm. Stay calm. She doesn’t know. She cannot know. “I doubt that,” Olive retorted weakly. “Take that upside-down Spider-Man kiss. That was way more bizarre than—” “Ol, you said you were on a date that night. You’re not dating Carlsen, are you?” She twisted her face in a grimace. It would have been so easy to confess the truth. Since starting grad school Anh and Olive had done heaps of moronic things, together and separately; the time Olive panicked and kissed none other than Adam Carlsen could become one of them, one they laughed about during their weekly beer-ands’mores nights. Or not. There was a chance that if Olive admitted to lying now, Anh might never trust her again. Or that she’d never go out with Jeremy. And as much as the idea of her best friend dating her ex had Olive wanting to puke just a bit, the thought of said best friend being anything but happy had her wanting to puke a lot more. The situation was depressingly simple: Olive was alone in the world. She had been for a long time, ever since high school. She had trained herself not to make a big deal out of it —she was sure many people were alone in the world and found themselves having to write down made-up names and phone numbers on their emergency contact forms. During college and her master’s, focusing on science and research had been her way of coping, and she had been perfectly ready to spend the rest of her life holed up in a lab with little more than a beaker and a handful of pipettes as her faithful companions —until . . . Anh. In a way, it had been love at first sight. First day of grad school. Biology cohort orientation. Olive entered the conference room, looked around, and sat in the first free seat
she could find, petrified. She was the only woman in the room, virtually alone in a sea of white men who were already talking about boats, and whatever sportsball was on TV the night before, and the best routes to drive places. I have made a terrible mistake, she thought. The Guy in the bathroom was wrong. I should never have come here. I am never going to fit in. And then a girl with curly dark hair and a pretty, round face plopped in the chair next to hers and muttered, “So much for the STEM programs’ commitment to inclusivity, am I right?” That was the moment everything changed. They could have just been allies. As the only two non-ciswhite-male students in their year, they could have found solace together when some bitching was needed and ignored each other otherwise. Olive had lots of friends like that—all of them, actually, circumstantial acquaintances whom she thought of fondly but not very often. Anh, though, had been different from the start. Maybe because they’d soon found out that they loved spending their Saturday nights eating junk food and falling asleep to rom-coms. Maybe it was the way she’d insisted on dragging Olive to every single “women in STEM” support group on campus and had wowed everyone with her bull’s-eye comments. Maybe it was that she’d opened up to Olive and explained how hard it had been for her to get where she was today. The way her older brothers had made fun of her and called her a nerd for loving math so much growing up—at an age when being a nerd was not quite considered cool. That time a physics professor asked her if she was in the wrong class on the first day of the semester. The fact that despite her grades and research experience, even her academic adviser had seemed skeptical when she’d decided to pursue STEM higher education. Olive, whose path to grad school had been rough but not nearly as rough, was befuddled. Then enraged. And then in
absolute awe when she understood the self-doubt that Anh had been able to harness into sheer fierceness. And for some unimaginable reason, Anh seemed to like Olive just as much. When Olive’s stipend hadn’t quite stretched to the end of the month, Anh had shared her instant ramen. When Olive’s computer had crashed without backups, Anh had stayed up all night to help her rewrite her crystallography paper. When Olive had nowhere to go over the holidays, Anh would bring her friend home to Michigan and let her large family ply Olive with delicious food while rapid Vietnamese flowed around her. When Olive had felt too stupid for the program and had considered dropping out, Anh had talked her out of it. The day Olive met Anh’s rolling eyes, a life-changing friendship was born. Slowly, they’d begun to include Malcolm and become a bit of a trio, but Anh . . . Anh was her person. Family. Olive hadn’t even thought that was possible for someone like her. Anh rarely asked anything for herself, and even though they’d been friends for more than two years, Olive had never seen her show interest in dating anyone—until Jeremy. Pretending that she’d been on a date with Carlsen was the least Olive could do to ensure her friend’s happiness. So she bucked up, smiled, and tried to keep her tone reasonably even while asking, “What do you mean?” “I mean that we talk every minute of every day, and you never mentioned Carlsen before. My closest friend is supposedly seeing the superstar professor of the department, and somehow I’ve never heard of it? You know his reputation, right? Is it some kind of joke? Do you have a brain tumor? Do I have a brain tumor?” This was what happened whenever Olive lied: she ended up having to tell even more lies to cover her first, and she was
horrible at it, which meant that each lie got worse and less convincing than the previous. There was no way she could fool Anh. There was no way she could fool anybody. Anh was going to get mad, then Jeremy was going to get mad, then Malcolm, too, and then Olive was going to find herself utterly alone. The heartbreak was going to make her flunk out of grad school. She was going to lose her visa and her only source of income and move back to Canada, where it snowed all the time and people ate moose heart and— “Hey.” The voice, deep and even, came from somewhere behind Olive, but she didn’t need to turn to know that it was Carlsen’s. Just like she didn’t need to turn to know that the large, warm weight suddenly steadying her, a firm but barely there pressure applied to the center of her lower back, was Carlsen’s hand. About two inches above her ass. Holy crap. Olive twisted her neck and looked up. And up. And up. And a bit more up. She was not a short woman, but he was just big. “Oh. Um, hey.” “Is everything okay?” He said it looking into her eyes, in a low, intimate tone. Like they were alone. Like Anh was not there. He said it in a way that should have made Olive uncomfortable but didn’t. For some inexplicable reason his presence in the room soothed her, even though until a second ago she had been freaking out. Perhaps two different types of unease neutralized each other? It sounded like a fascinating research topic. Worth pursuing. Maybe Olive should abandon biology and switch to psychology. Maybe she should excuse herself and go run a literature search. Maybe she should expire on the spot to avoid facing this crapfest of a situation she’d put herself in.
“Yes. Yes. Everything is great. Anh and I were just . . . chatting. About our weekends.” Carlsen looked at Anh, as though realizing for the first time that she was in the room. He acknowledged her existence with one of those brief nods dudes used to greet others. His hand slid lower on Olive’s spine just as Anh’s eyes widened. “Nice to meet you, Anh. I’ve heard a lot about you,” Carlsen said, and he was good at this, Olive had to admit. Because she was sure that from Anh’s angle it looked like he was groping her, but in fact he was . . . not. Olive could barely feel his hand on her. Just a little, maybe. The warmth, and the slight pressure, and— “Nice to meet you, too.” Anh looked thunderstruck. Like she might pass out. “Um, I was just about to leave. Ol, I’m going to text you when . . . yeah.” She was out of the room before Olive could answer. Which was good, because Olive didn’t need to come up with more lies. But also slightly less good, because now it was just her and Carlsen. Standing way too close. Olive would have paid good money to say that she was the one to put some distance between them, but the embarrassing truth was that it was Carlsen who stepped away first. Enough to give her the space she needed, and then some. “Is everything okay?” he asked again. His tone was still soft. Not something she would have expected from him. “Yes. Yes, I just . . .” Olive waved her hand. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” “Did you hear what she said? About Friday and . . .” “I did. That’s why I . . .” He looked at her, and then at his hand—the one that had been warming her back a few seconds
ago—and Olive immediately understood. “Thank you,” she repeated. Because Adam Carlsen might have been a known ass, but Olive was feeling pretty damn grateful right at the moment. “Also, uh, I couldn’t help noticing that no agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have knocked on my door to arrest me in the past seventy-two hours.” The corner of his mouth twitched. Minimally. “Is that so?” Olive nodded. “Which makes me think that maybe you haven’t filed that complaint. Even though it would have been totally within your rights. So, thank you. For that. And . . . and for stepping in, right now. You saved me a lot of trouble.” Carlsen stared at her for a long moment, looking suddenly like he did during seminar, when people mixed up theory and hypothesis or admitted to using listwise deletion instead of imputation. “You shouldn’t need someone to step in.” Olive stiffened. Right. Known ass. “Well, it’s not as if I asked you to do anything. I was going to handle it by myse—” “And you shouldn’t have to lie about your relationship status,” he continued. “Especially not so that your friend and your boyfriend can get together guilt-free. That’s not how friendship works, last I checked.” Oh. So he’d actually been listening when Olive vomited her life story at him. “It’s not like that.” He lifted an eyebrow, and Olive raised a hand in defense. “Jeremy wasn’t really my boyfriend. And Anh didn’t ask me for anything. I’m not some sort of victim, I just . . . want my friend to be happy.” “By lying to her,” he added drily. “Well, yeah, but . . . She thinks we’re dating, you and I,” Olive blurted out. God, the implications were too ridiculous to bear.
“Wasn’t that the point?” “Yeah.” She nodded and then remembered the coffee in her hand and took a sip from her mug. It was still warm. The conversation with Anh couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. “Yeah. I guess it was. By the way—I’m Olive Smith. In case you’re still interested in filing that complaint. I’m a Ph.D. student in Dr. Aslan’s lab—” “I know who you are.” “Oh.” Maybe he had looked her up, then. Olive tried to imagine him combing through the Current Ph.D. Students’ section on the department website. Olive’s picture had been taken by the program secretary on her third day of grad school, well before she had become fully aware of what she was in for. She had made an effort to look good: tamed her wavy brown hair, put on mascara to pop the green of her eyes, even attempted to hide her freckles with some borrowed foundation. It had been before she’d realized how ruthless, how cutthroat academia could be. Before the sense of inadequacy, before the constant fear that even if she was good at research, she might never be able to truly make it as an academic. She had been smiling. A real, actual smile. “Okay.” “I’m Adam. Carlsen. I’m faculty in—” She burst out laughing in his face. And then regretted it immediately as she noticed his confused expression, as though he’d seriously thought Olive might not know who he was. As though he was unaware of being one of the most prominent scholars in the field. The modesty was not at all like Adam Carlsen. Olive cleared her throat. “Right. Um, I know who you are, too, Dr. Carlsen.” “You should probably call me Adam.”
“Oh. Oh, no.” That would be way too . . . No. The department was not like that. Grads didn’t call faculty by their first names. “I could never—” “If Anh happens to be around.” “Oh. Yeah.” It made sense. “Thank you. I hadn’t thought of that.” Or of anything else, really. Clearly, her brain had stopped working three days ago, when she’d decided that kissing him to save her own ass was a good idea. “If that’s ookay with you. I’m going to go home, because this whole thing was kind of stressful and . . .” I was going to run an experiment, but I really need to sit on the couch and watch American Ninja Warrior for forty-five minutes while eating Cool Ranch Doritos, which taste surprisingly better than you’d give them credit for. He nodded. “I’ll walk you to your car.” “I’m not that distraught.” “In case Anh’s still around.” “Oh.” It was, Olive had to admit, a kind offer. Surprisingly so. Especially because it came from Adam “I’m Too Good for This Department” Carlsen. Olive knew that he was a dick, so she couldn’t quite understand why today he . . . didn’t seem to be one. Maybe she should just blame her own appalling behavior, which would make anyone look good by comparison. “Thanks. But no need.” She could tell that he didn’t want to insist but couldn’t help himself. “I’d feel better if you let me walk you to your car.” “I don’t have a car.” I’m a grad student living in Stanford, California. I make less than thirty thousand dollars a year. My rent takes up two-thirds of my salary. I’ve been wearing the same pair of contacts since May, and I go to every seminar that provides refreshments to save on meals, she didn’t bother
adding. She had no idea how old Carlsen was, but it couldn’t have been that long ago that he was a grad student. “Do you take the bus?” “I bike. And my bike is right at the entrance of the building.” He opened his mouth, and then closed it. And then opened it again. You kissed that mouth, Olive. And it was a good kiss. “There are no bike lanes around here.” She shrugged. “I like to live dangerously.” Cheaply, she meant. “And I have a helmet.” She turned to set her mug on the first surface she could find. She’d retrieve it later. Or not, if someone stole it. Who cared? She’d gotten it from a postdoc who’d left academia to become a DJ, anyway. For the second time in less than a week, Carlsen had saved her ass. For the second time, she couldn’t stand being with him a minute longer. “I’ll see you around, okay?” His chest rose as he inhaled deeply. “Yeah. Okay.” Olive got out of the room as fast as she could. —
“IS IT A prank? It must be a prank. Am I on national TV? Where are the hidden cameras? How do I look?” “It’s not a prank. There are no cameras.” Olive adjusted the strap of her backpack on her shoulder and stepped to the side to avoid being run over by an undergrad on an electric scooter. “But now that you mention it—you look great. Especially for seven thirty in the morning.”
Anh didn’t blush, but it was a close thing. “Last night I did one of those face masks that you and Malcolm got me for my birthday. The one that looks like a panda? And I got a new sunscreen that’s supposed to give you a bit of a glow. And I put on mascara,” she added hastily under her breath. Olive could ask her why she’d gone the extra mile to look nice on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning, but she already knew the answer: Jeremy’s and Anh’s labs were on the same floor, and while the biology department was large, chance encounters were very much a possibility. She hid a smile. As weird as the idea of a best friend dating an ex might sound, she was glad that Anh was starting to allow herself to consider Jeremy romantically. Mostly, it was nice to know that the indignity Olive had put herself through with Carlsen on The Night was paying off. That, together with Tom Benton’s very promising email about her research project, had Olive thinking that things might be finally looking up. “Okay.” Anh chewed on her lower lip, deep in concentration. “So it’s not a prank. Which means that there must be another explanation. Let me find it.” “There is no explanation to be found. We just—” “Oh my God, are you trying to get citizenship? Are they deporting you back to Canada because we’ve been sharing Malcolm’s Netflix password? Tell them we didn’t know it was a federal crime. No, wait, don’t tell them anything until we get you a lawyer. And, Ol, I will marry you. I’ll get you a green card and you won’t have to—” “Anh.” Olive squeezed her friend’s hand tighter to get her to shut up for a second. “I promise you, I’m not getting deported. I just went on a single date with Carlsen.” Anh scrunched her face and dragged Olive to a bench on the side of the path, forcing her to sit down. Olive complied, telling herself that were their positions inverted, had she
caught Anh kissing Adam Carlsen, she’d probably have the same reaction. Hell, she’d probably be busy booking a fullblown psychiatric evaluation for Anh. “Listen,” Anh started, “do you remember last spring, when I held your hair back while you projectile vomited the five pounds of spoiled shrimp cocktail you ate at Dr. Park’s retirement party?” “Oh, yes. I do.” Olive cocked her head, pensive. “You ate more than me and never got sick.” “Because I’m made of sterner stuff, but never mind that. The point is: I am here for you, and always will be, no matter what. No matter how many pounds of spoiled shrimp cocktail you projectile vomit, you can trust me. We’re a team, you and I. And Malcolm, when he’s not busy screwing his way through the Stanford population. So if Carlsen is secretly an extraterrestrial life-form planning a takeover of Earth that will ultimately result in humanity being enslaved by evil overlords who look like cicadas, and the only way to stop him is dating him, you can tell me and I’ll inform NASA—” “For God’s sake”—Olive had to laugh—“it was just a date!” Anh looked pained. “I just don’t understand.” Because it doesn’t make sense. “I know, but there is nothing to understand. It’s just . . . We went on a date.” “But . . . why? Ol, you’re beautiful and smart and funny and have excellent taste in knee socks, why would you go out with Adam Carlsen?” Olive scratched her nose. “Because he is . . .” It cost her, to say the word. Oh, it cost her. But she had to. “Nice.” “Nice?” Anh’s eyebrows shot up so high they almost merged with her hairline.
She does look extra cute today, Olive reflected, pleased. “Adam ‘Ass’ Carlsen?” “Well, yeah. He is . . .” Olive looked around, as if help could come from the oak trees, or the undergrads rushing to their summer classes. When it didn’t seem forthcoming, she just finished, lamely, “He is a nice asshole, I guess.” Anh’s expression went straight up disbelieving. “Okay, so you went from dating someone as cool as Jeremy to going out with Adam Carlsen.” Perfect. This was exactly the opening Olive had wanted. “I did. And happily, because I never cared that much about Jeremy.” Finally some truth in this conversation. “It wasn’t that hard to move on, honestly. Which is why— Please, Anh, put that boy out of his misery. He deserves it, and above all, you deserve it. I bet he’s on campus today. You should ask him to accompany you to that horror movie festival so I don’t have to come with you and sleep with the lights on for the next six months.” This time Anh blushed outright. She looked down at her hands, picked at her fingernails, and then she began to fiddle with the hem of her shorts before saying, “I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, if you really think that—” The sound of an alarm went off from Anh’s pocket, and she straightened to pull out her phone. “Crap, I’ve got a Diversity in STEM mentoring meeting and then I have to run two assays.” She stood, picking up her backpack. “Want to get together for lunch?” “Can’t. Have a TA meeting.” Olive smiled. “Maybe Jeremy’s free, though.” Anh rolled her eyes, but the corners of her mouth were curving up. It made Olive more than a little happy. So happy
that she didn’t even flip her off when Anh turned around from the path and asked, “Is he blackmailing you?” “Huh?” “Carlsen. Is he blackmailing you? Did he find out that you’re an aberration and pee in the shower?” “First of all, it’s time efficient.” Olive glared. “Second, I find it oddly flattering that you’d think Carlsen would go to these ridiculous lengths to get me to date him.” “Anyone would, Ol. Because you’re awesome.” Anh grimaced before adding, “Except when you’re peeing in the shower.” —
JEREMY WAS ACTING weird. Which didn’t mean much, since Jeremy had always been a bit awkward, and having recently split from Olive to date her best friend was not going to make him any less so—but today he seemed even weirder than usual. He came into the campus coffee shop, a few hours after Olive’s conversation with Anh, and proceeded to stare at her for two good minutes. Then three. Then five. It was more attention than he’d ever paid to Olive—yes, including their dates. When it got borderline ridiculous, she lifted her eyes from her laptop and waved at him. Jeremy flushed, grabbed his latte from the counter, and found a table for himself. Olive went back to rereading her two-line email for the seventieth time.
Today, 10:12 a.m.
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]
SUBJECT: Re: Pancreatic Cancer Screening Project
Dr. Benton,
Thank you for your response. Chatting in person would be fantastic. What day will you be at Stanford? Let me know when it’s most convenient for you to meet.
Not twenty minutes later, a fourth-year who worked with Dr. Holden Rodrigues over in pharmacology came in and took a seat next to Jeremy. They immediately started whispering to each other and pointing at Olive. Any other day she would have been concerned and a little upset, but Dr. Benton had already answered her email, which took priority over . . . anything else, really.
Today, 10:26 a.m.
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]
SUBJECT: Re: Pancreatic Cancer Screening Project
I’m on sabbatical from Harvard this semester, so I’ll be staying for several days. A Stanford collaborator and I were just awarded a large grant, and we’ll be meeting to talk about setup, etc. Okay if we play it by ear once I’m there?
Sent from my iPhone
Yes! She had several days to convince him to take on her project, which was much better than the ten minutes she’d originally anticipated. Olive fist-pumped—which led to Jeremy and his friend staring at her even more weirdly. What was up with them, anyway? Did she have toothpaste on her face or something? Who cared? She was going to meet Tom Benton and convince him to take her on. Pancreatic cancer, I’m coming for you.
She was in an excellent mood until two hours later, when she entered the biology TA meeting and a sudden silence dropped in the room. About fifteen pairs of eyes fixed on her —not a reaction she was accustomed to receiving. “Uh—hi?” A couple of people said hi back. Most averted their gazes. Olive told herself that she was just imagining things. Must be low blood sugar. Or high. One of the two. “Hey, Olive.” A seventh-year who had never before acknowledged her existence moved his backpack and freed the seat next to his. “How are you?” “Good.” She sat down gingerly, trying to keep the suspicion from her tone. “Um, you?” “Great.” There was something about his smile. Something salacious and fake. Olive was considering asking about it when the head TA managed to get the projector to work and called everyone’s attention to the meeting. After that, things became even weirder. Dr. Aslan stopped by the lab just to ask Olive if there was anything she’d like to talk about; Chase, a grad in her lab, let her use the PCR machine first, even though he usually hoarded it like a third grader with his last piece of Halloween candy; the lab manager winked at Olive as he handed her a stack of blank paper for the printer. And then she met Malcolm in the all-gender restroom, completely by chance, and suddenly everything made sense. “You sneaky monster,” he hissed. His black eyes were almost comically narrow. “I’ve been texting you all day.” “Oh.” Olive patted the back pocket of her jeans, and then the front one, trying to remember the last time she had seen her phone. “I think I might have left my phone at home.”
“I cannot believe it.” “Believe what?” “I cannot believe you.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “I thought we were friends.” “We are.” “Good friends.” “We are. You and Anh are my best friends. What—” “Clearly not, if I had to hear it from Stella, who heard it from Jess, who heard it from Jeremy, who heard it from Anh —” “Hear what?” “—who heard it from I don’t even know who. And I thought we were friends.” Something icy crawled its way up Olive’s back. Could it be . . . No. No, it couldn’t be. “Hear what?” “I’m done. I’m letting the cockroaches eat you. And I’m changing my Netflix password.” Oh no. “Malcolm. Hear what?” “That you are dating Adam Carlsen.” —
OLIVE HAD NEVER been in Carlsen’s lab, but she knew where to find it. It was the biggest, most functional research space in the whole department, coveted by all and a never-ending source of resentment toward Carlsen. She had to swipe her badge once and then once more to access it (she rolled her eyes both times). The second door opened directly onto the lab space,
and maybe it was because he was as tall as Mount Everest and his shoulders were just as large, but Carlsen was the very first thing she noticed. He was peering at a Southern blot next to Alex, a grad who was one year ahead of Olive, but he turned toward the entrance the moment she came in. Olive smiled weakly at him—mainly out of relief at having found him. It was going to be all right. She was going to explain to him what Malcolm had told her, and without a doubt he was going to find the situation categorically unacceptable and fix it for the both of them, because Olive could not spend her next three years surrounded by people who thought that she was dating Adam freaking Carlsen. The problem was, Carlsen wasn’t the only one to notice Olive. There were over a dozen benches in the lab, and at least ten people working at them. Most of them—all of them—were staring at Olive. Probably because most of them—all of them —had heard that Olive was dating their boss. Fuck her life. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Dr. Carlsen?” Rationally, Olive knew that the lab was not furnished in a way that made echoing possible. Still, she felt as though her words bounced off the walls and repeated about four times. Carlsen nodded, nonplussed, and handed the Southern blot to Alex before heading in her direction. He appeared either unaware or uncaring that approximately two-thirds of his lab members were gaping at him. The remaining ones seemed to be on the verge of a hemorrhagic stroke. He led Olive to a meeting room just outside the main lab space, and she followed him silently, trying not to dwell on the fact that a lab full of people who thought that she and Carlsen were dating had just seen them enter a private room. Alone.
This was the worst. The absolute worst. “Everyone knows,” she blurted out as soon as the door closed behind her. He studied her for a moment, looking puzzled. “Are you okay?” “Everyone knows. About us.” He cocked his head, crossing his arms over his chest. It had been barely a day since they’d last talked, but apparently long enough for Olive to have forgotten his . . . his presence. Or whatever it was that made her feel like she was small and delicate whenever he was around. “Us?” “Us.” He seemed confused, so Olive elaborated. “Us, dating—not that we’re dating, but Anh clearly thought so, and she told . . .” She realized that the words were tumbling out and forced herself to slow down. “Jeremy. And he told everyone, and now everyone knows. Or they think they know, even though there’s absolutely nothing to know. As you and I know.” He took it in for a moment and then nodded slowly. “And when you say everyone . . . ?” “I mean everyone.” She pointed in the direction of his lab. “Those people? They know. The other grads? They know. Cherie, the department secretary? She totally knows. Gossip in this department is the worst. And they all think that I am dating a professor.” “I see,” he said, seeming strangely unbothered by this clusterfuck. It should have calmed Olive down, but it only had the effect of driving her panic up a notch. “I am sorry this happened. So sorry. This is all my fault.” She wiped a hand down her face. “But I didn’t think that . . . I
understand why Anh would tell Jeremy—I mean, getting those two together was the whole point of this charade—but . . . Why would Jeremy tell anyone?” Carlsen shrugged. “Why wouldn’t he?” She looked up. “What do you mean?” “A grad student dating a faculty member seems like an interesting piece of information to share.” Olive shook her head. “It’s not that interesting. Why would people be interested?” He lifted one eyebrow. “Someone once told me that ‘Gossip in this department is the wor—’ ” “Okay, okay. Point taken.” She took a deep breath and started pacing, trying to ignore the way Carlsen was studying her, how relaxed he looked, arms across his chest while leaning against the conference table. He was not supposed to be calm. He was supposed to be incensed. He was a known dick with a reputation for arrogance—the idea of people thinking that he was dating a nobody should be mortifying to him. The burden of freaking out should not be falling on Olive alone. “This is— We need to do something, of course. We need to tell people that this is not true and that we made it all up. Except that they’ll think that I’m crazy, and maybe that you are, too, so we have to come up with some other story. Yes, okay, we need to tell people we’re not together anymore—” “And what will Anh and what’s-his-face do?” Olive stopped pacing. “Uh?” “Won’t your friends feel bad about dating if they think we’re not together? Or that you lied to them?” She hadn’t thought of that. “I— Maybe. Maybe, but—”
It was true that Anh had seemed happy. Maybe she had already invited Jeremy to accompany her to that movie festival —possibly right after telling him about Olive and Carlsen, damn her. But this was exactly what Olive had wanted. “Are you going to tell her the truth?” She let out a panicked sound. “I can’t. Not now.” God, why did Olive ever agree to date Jeremy? She wasn’t even into him. Yes, the Irish accent and the ginger hair were cute, but not worth any of this. “Maybe we can tell people that I broke up with you?” “That’s very flattering,” Dr. Carlsen deadpanned. She couldn’t quite figure out if he was joking. “Fine. We can say that you broke up with me.” “Because that sounds credible,” he said drily, almost below his breath. She was not sure she’d heard him correctly and had no idea what he might mean, but she was starting to feel very upset. Fine, she had been the one to kiss him first—God, she’d kissed Adam Carlsen; this was her life; these were her choices —but his actions in the break room the day before surely hadn’t helped matters. He could at least display some concern. There was no way he was okay with everyone believing that he was attracted to some random girl with one point five publications—yes, that paper she had revised and resubmitted three weeks ago counted as half. “What if we tell people that it was a mutual breakup?” He nodded. “Sounds good.” Olive perked up. “Really? Great, then! We’ll—” “We could ask Cherie to add it to the departmental newsletter.” “What?”
“Or do you think a public announcement before seminar would be better?” “No. No, it’s—” “Maybe we should ask IT to put it on the Stanford home page. That way people would know—” “Okay, okay, fine! I get it.” He looked at her evenly for a moment, and when he spoke, his tone was reasonable in a way she would never have expected of Adam “Ass” Carlsen. “If what bothers you is that people are talking about you dating a professor, the damage is done, I’m afraid. Telling everyone that we broke up is not going to undo the fact that they think we dated.” Olive’s shoulders slumped. She hated that he was right. “Okay, then. If you have any ideas on how to fix this mess, by all means I am open to—” “You could let them go on thinking it.” For a moment, she thought she hadn’t heard him correctly. “W-What?” “You can let people go on thinking that we’re dating. It solves your problem with your friend and what’s-his-face, and you don’t have much to lose, since it sounds like from a . . . reputation standpoint”—he said the word “reputation” rolling his eyes a little, as if the concept of caring about what others thought were the dumbest thing since homeopathic antibiotics —“things cannot get any worse for you.” This was . . . Out of everything . . . In her life, Olive had never, she had never . . . “What?” she asked again, feebly. He shrugged. “Seems like a win-win to me.” It so did not, to Olive. It seemed like a lose-lose, and then lose again, and then lose some more, type of situation. It
seemed insane. “You mean . . . forever?” She thought her voice came out whiny, but it was possible that it was just an effect of the blood pounding in her head. “That sounds excessive. Maybe until your friends are not dating anymore? Or until they’re more settled? I don’t know. Whatever works best, I guess.” He was serious about this. He was not joking. “Are you not . . .” Olive had no idea how to even ask it. “Married, or something?” He must have been in his early thirties. He had a fantastic job; he was tall with thick, wavy black hair, clearly smart, even attractive looking; he was built. Yeah, he was a moody dick, but some women wouldn’t mind it. Some women might even like it. He shrugged. “My wife and the twins won’t mind.” Oh, shit. Olive felt a wave of heat wash over her. She blushed crimson and then almost died of shame, because— God, she had forced a married man, a father, to kiss her. Now people thought that he was having an affair. His wife was probably crying into her pillow. His kids would grow up with horrible daddy issues and become serial killers. “I . . . Oh my God, I didn’t— I am so sorry—” “Just kidding.” “I really had no idea that you—” “Olive. I was joking. I’m not married. No kids.” A wave of relief crashed into her. Followed by just as much anger. “Dr. Carlsen, this is not something you should joke—” “You really need to start calling me Adam. Since we’ve reportedly been dating for a while.”
Olive exhaled slowly, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Why would you even— What would you even get out of this?” “Out of what?” “Pretending to date me. Why do you care? What’s in it for you?” Dr. Carlsen—Adam—opened his mouth, and for a moment Olive had the impression that he was going to say something important. But then he averted his gaze, and all that came out was “It would help you out.” He hesitated for a moment. “And I have my own reasons.” She narrowed her eyes. “What reasons?” “Reasons.” “If it’s criminal, I’d rather not be involved.” He smiled a bit. “It’s not.” “If you don’t tell me, I have no choice but to assume that it entails kidnapping. Or arson. Or embezzlement.” He seemed preoccupied for a moment, fingertips drumming against a large biceps. It considerably strained his shirt. “If I tell you, it cannot leave this room.” “I think we can both agree that nothing that has happened in this room should ever leave it.” “Good point,” he conceded. He paused. Sighed. Chewed on the inside of his cheek for a second. Sighed again. “Okay,” he finally said, sounding like a man who knew that he was going to regret speaking the second he opened his mouth. “I’m considered a flight risk.” “Flight risk?” God, he was a felon on parole. A jury of his peers had convicted him for crimes against grad students. He’d
probably whacked someone on the head with a microscope for mislabeling peptide samples. “So it is something criminal.” “What? No. The department suspects that I’m making plans to leave Stanford and move to another institution. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but Stanford has decided to freeze my research funds.” “Oh.” Not what she’d thought. Not at all. “Can they?” “Yes. Well, up to one-third of them. The reasoning is that they don’t want to fund the research and further the career of someone who—they believe—is going to leave anyway.” “But if it’s only one-third—” “It’s millions of dollars,” he said levelly. “That I had earmarked for projects that I planned to finish within the next year. Here, at Stanford. Which means that I need those funds soon.” “Oh.” Come to think of it, Olive had been hearing scuttlebutt about Carlsen being recruited by other universities since her first year. A few months earlier there had even been a rumor that he might go work for NASA. “Why do they think that? And why now?” “A number of reasons. The most relevant is that a few weeks ago I was awarded a grant—a very large grant—with a scientist at another institution. That institution had tried to recruit me in the past, and Stanford sees the collaboration as an indication that I am planning to accept.” He hesitated before continuing. “More generally, I have been made aware that the . . . optics are that I have not put down roots because I want to be able to flee Stanford at the drop of a hat.” “Roots?” “Most of my grads will be done within the year. I have no extended family in the area. No wife, no children. I’m currently renting—I’d have to buy a house just to convince the
department that I’m committed to staying,” he said, clearly irritated. “If I was in a relationship . . . that would really help.” Okay. That made sense. But. “Have you considered getting a real girlfriend?” His eyebrow lifted. “Have you considered getting a real date?” “Touché.” Olive fell silent and studied him for a few moments, letting him study her in return. Funny how she used to be scared of him. Now he was the only person in the world who knew about her worst fuckup ever, and it was hard to feel intimidated—even harder, after discovering that he was the kind of person who’d be desperate enough to pretend to date someone to get his research funds back. Olive was sure that she would do the exact same for the opportunity to finish her study on pancreatic cancer, which made Adam seem oddly . . . relatable. And if he was relatable, then she could go ahead and fake-date him, right? No. Yes. No. What? She was crazy for even considering this. She was certifiably mental. And yet she found herself saying, “It would be complicated.” “What would be?” “To pretend that we’re dating.” “Really? It would be complicated to make people think that we’re dating?” Oh, he was impossible. “Okay, I see your point. But it would be hard to do so convincingly for a prolonged period.” He shrugged. “We’ll be fine, as long as we say hi to each other in the hallways and you don’t call me Dr. Carlsen.” “I don’t think people who are dating just . . . say hi to each other.”
“What do people who are dating do?” It beat Olive. She had gone on maybe five dates in her life, including the ones with Jeremy, and they had ranged from moderately boring to anxiety inducing to horrifying (mostly when a guy had monologued about his grandmother’s hip replacement in frightening detail). She would have loved to have someone in her life, but she doubted it was in store for her. Maybe she was unlovable. Maybe spending so many years alone had warped her in some fundamental way and that was why she seemed to be unable to develop a true romantic connection, or even the type of attraction she often heard others talk about. In the end, it didn’t really matter. Grad school and dating went poorly together, anyway, which was probably why Dr. Adam Carlsen, MacArthur Fellow and genius extraordinaire, was standing here at thirtysomething years old, asking Olive what people did on dates. Academics, ladies and gentlemen. “Um . . . things. Stuff.” Olive racked her brain. “People go out and do activities together. Like apple picking, or those Paint and Sip things.” Which are idiotic, Olive thought. “Which are idiotic,” Adam said, gesturing dismissively with those huge hands of his. “You could just go to Anh and tell her that we went out and painted a Monet. Sounds like she’d take care of letting everyone else know.” “Okay, first of all, it was Jeremy. Let’s agree to blame Jeremy. And it’s more than that,” Olive insisted. “People who date, they—they talk. A lot. More than just greetings in the hallway. They know each other’s favorite colors, and where they were born, and they . . . they hold hands. They kiss.” Adam pressed his lips together as if to suppress a smile. “We could never do that.” A fresh wave of mortification crashed into Olive. “I am sorry about the kiss. I really didn’t think, and—”
He shook his head. “It’s fine.” He did seem uncharacteristically indifferent to the situation, especially for a guy who was known to freak out when people got the atomic number of selenium wrong. No, he wasn’t indifferent. He was amused. Olive cocked her head. “Are you enjoying this?” “ ‘Enjoying’ is probably not the right word, but you have to admit that it’s quite entertaining.” She had no idea what he was talking about. There was nothing entertaining about the fact that she had randomly kissed a faculty member because he was the only person in the hallway and that, as a consequence of that spectacularly idiotic action, everyone thought she was dating someone she’d met exactly twice before today— She burst into laughter and folded into herself before her train of thought was even over, overwhelmed by the sheer improbability of the situation. This was her life. These were the results of her actions. When she could finally breathe again, her abs hurt and she had to wipe her eyes. “This is the worst.” He was smiling, staring at her with a strange light in his eyes. And would you look at that: Adam Carlsen had dimples. Cute ones. “Yep.” “And it’s all my fault.” “Pretty much. I kind of yanked Anh’s chain yesterday, but yeah, I’d say that it’s mostly your fault.” Fake dating. Adam Carlsen. Olive would have to be a lunatic. “Wouldn’t it be a problem that you’re faculty and I’m a graduate student?” He tilted his head, going serious. “It wouldn’t look great, but I don’t think so, no. Since I have no authority whatsoever
over you and am not involved in your supervision. But I can ask around.” It was an epically bad idea. The worst idea ever entertained in the epically bad history of bad ideas. Except that it really would solve this current problem of hers, as well as some of Adam’s, in exchange for saying hi to him once a week and making an effort not to call him Dr. Carlsen. It seemed like a pretty good deal. “Can I think about it?” “Of course,” he said calmly. Reassuringly. She hadn’t thought he’d be like this. After hearing all the stories, and seeing him walk around with that perpetual frown of his, she really hadn’t thought he’d be like this. Even if she didn’t quite know what this even meant. “And thank you, I guess. For offering. Adam.” She added the last word like an afterthought. Trying it out on her lips. It felt weird, but not too weird. After a long pause, he nodded. “No problem. Olive.”

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