Chapter 1: Vocabulary
vocabulary = the words that make up a language
Holtzmann spoke four languages.
English, obviously. Then Danish from her art school years. Quechua, an indigenous South American language. And French.
And a bit of Russian, but only a bit, so she didn’t count it.
In her experience, people were a lot like languages. Definitely more like languages than like nuclear engineering. Once she understood a reaction perfectly, she was set. (Unless she blew it up. But even that, in its own way, was consistent.)
On the other hand, people, like languages, changed.
Second, new people were especially confusing, a bundle of sounds and silences that Holtzmann couldn’t parse into phrases. There were no patterns, only noise.
Third, if she tried to truly figure out someone, there was a steep learning curve. Metaphorically, she might know that nouns came before verbs, but that didn’t mean she could speak in full sentences.
The whole process usually lasted too long to hold Holtzmann’s attention. That, and it took too much energy. She preferred to expend her energy in a lab, where the unstable elements were still more stable than people.
When she needed to interact, she relied on the image she had developed: fearless and strange. In many ways, it was the truth, but it, too, took energy.
Holtzmann remained monolingual in people for a long time.
Then, during college, she picked up a few phrases of Rebecca Gorin.
At Higgins, she built a small but solid Abby Yates vocabulary.
And then Erin and Patty entered her world, and the four of them together became a family, and Holtzmann decided that learning several words of each of her teammates’ languages would be worthwhile … and plenty sufficient.
Until today. Today the Shift happened, as she mentally referred to it.
Holtzmann was sitting on a swivel chair with her feet propped up on a table, cutting a long wire into smaller wires. She snipped off the end and glanced up to see Erin chewing on a pencil. It was a very stereotypical pencil, yellow and wooden with a small “#2” printed on the side.
In that small moment, more than anything else, Holtzmann desperately wanted to rearrange her molecules and reform herself into that pencil.
She blinked in surprise at the realization, and the wire cutters narrowly missed clamping down on her finger. She slid her goggles away from her eyes and up her forehead, leaned her chin in her palm, and stared openly at Erin.
The pencil twirled, its eraser disappearing between Erin’s ChapStick-coated lips. Holtzmann couldn’t look away.
Now that she thought about it, she should have noticed sooner. The real shift had begun weeks ago, maybe even months, and it wasn’t subtle.
She had noticed the way Erin liked to divide her calculations into chunks so she could see all the components. (So Holtzmann bought her a pack of neon dry-erase markers for color-coding.)
She had learned which of her songs were most likely to result in Erin dancing with her fingers. (So Holtzmann played those songs more often, and skipped past the others.)
She had memorized the way Erin liked her coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and even apple cider. (So Holtzmann always came back from the corner cafe with two cups, one for her and one for Erin.)
And she had done all of it, all of this learning bits and pieces of Erin, by accident. But it still wasn’t enough. She wanted more.
She wanted to become fluent in Erin Gilbert.
Holtzmann painstakingly ignored Erin for the rest of the day while her head buzzed with too many questions and not enough answers. She went home earlier than usual, but by the next day she had formulated a basic game plan.
The first step, Holtzmann decided, was expanding her Erin vocabulary. That meant all the words that made up her language—all the little things that made Erin Erin.
The first one she noticed was posture.
Erin held herself like she had to be prepared to give a lecture on the Higgs boson at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t stiff, not entirely, but it was guarded and professional. Too professional, in Holtzmann’s opinion, for the firehouse.
Erin was standing at her white board, an uncapped neon green marker in one hand and a plain black one in the other. Even though she was clearly immersed in her work, she had her spine straight and her shoulders carefully down and back.
Holtzmann abandoned her own work and sidled up next to Erin without her noticing.
“You would make a great advertisement for a scoliosis clinic,” she said. “People would be all over your skeleton.”
Erin dropped the green marker and it clattered on the floor. She spun her head so fast that her hair lifted up before settling back against her shoulders. Gorgeous, thought Holtzmann.
“What … what was that?” said Erin.
“Spine realignment therapy,” Holtzmann elaborated. “Your spine is very … aligned.”
Erin’s mouth fell open a bit, and then closed. It reminded Holtzmann of the guppies at the New York Aquarium. (She had an annual membership, primarily so she could go pet the sting rays whenever she wanted.)
That, Holtzmann realized, was another vocabulary word she didn’t know.
“Erin,” she said slowly, “do you like fish?” She bent to retrieve the marker while she said it, head popping back up on the word “fish.”
Erin considered her. “Alive or as food?”
“Alive,” said Holtzmann.
“Sure,” said Erin.
Holtzmann nodded thoughtfully. “Good to know. Thanks.”
She returned the neon marker to the object of her affection, and went back to her work for all of two minutes before Erin interrupted her.
“You were talking about my posture, weren’t you?”
Holtzmann peered at Erin over the top of a heap of tools and metal parts. The world overall looked better through her glasses, but yellow-tinted Erin was maybe better than yellow-tinted anything else. She had a feeling that Erin would look good tinted any color.
Erin did an odd sort of nervous shuffling movement with her feet. Holtzmann thought it was magnificent.
“I’m too uptight, I get it,” Erin said.
Holtzmann shook her head quickly and emphatically. The last thing she wanted was for her studying of Erin to make her feel more insecure.
“Aligned spines are hot, Gilbert,” she said.
Erin’s cheeks reddened, and Holtzmann counted it as a success.
The second thing Holtzmann noticed that day—or third, including the fact that Erin approved of fish—was her sentimentality, and it only took Holtzmann nearly throwing up from a spring roll overdose to discover it.
Erin didn’t have any photographs on her desk, and her jewelry was varied enough that Holtzmann doubted any of the pieces held personal significance. So before today, she had assumed that Erin did not attach excessive value to inanimate objects.
In this area, clearly, they were different. Holtzmann glanced down at the Screw U necklace hanging around her neck.
It was just after lunch—well, for the other three Ghostbusters, at least—and Holtzmann was sitting cross-legged on the floor, head resting against the side of Erin’s desk, trying to prove that she could indeed eat ten spring rolls in addition to her meal. She had made it through eight so far. The ninth was proving challenging. She held it up in front of her face and frowned at it.
Erin was sitting at her desk, too, but in the chair— “like an adult,” she’d said. Holtzmann could hear the scratch of a pencil against paper. Then it stopped.
“Holtz, you’re going to make yourself sick.”
“You dared me.”
“I did not.”
“Patty dared me.”
“No, she didn’t. You dared yourself.”
Holtzmann sighed and moved the spring roll half an inch closer to her lips.
“I can’t watch this,” Erin complained.
“You have to. You’re the witness.”
Holtzmann heard the paper rustle, the chair squeak, and then Erin was on the floor facing her, mimicking her cross-legged position.
“Fine,” she said. “If I can’t stop you, then I’m going to help you do it.”
Holtzmann lowered her eyes to the floor. Erin was nice. Erin was sitting on the floor with her for encouragement. Erin was wonderful. Erin—
She looked back up.
“You can do it,” said Erin, and shook her fists lightly as if she were waving pom-poms. Holtzmann’s face split open into a grin.
“Are you my cheerleader?” she said.
“Just eat the damn spring roll.”
Holtzmann shoved the whole thing into her mouth, using her fingers to keep pieces from falling out. Erin’s eyes had gone very wide.
“Can do anyfing if you bewief in me,” Holtzmann said mid-chew. She swallowed with a gulp.
“Okay, one more,” said Erin.
The final spring roll mocked Holtzmann from its Styrofoam carton. She would have bet money it was larger than the others.
“Do you know what cheerleader is in French?” she asked, postponing the inevitable.
“No,” said Erin. “But it’s alimañas in Spanish.” Holtzmann was pretty sure that was wrong. “Do you know the word for cheerleader in French?”
“Pom-pom girl,” said Holtzmann, with an exaggerated accent.
“It is not.”
“Is too. Look it up.”
Erin still looked unconvinced.
“So will you cheer for me, ma pom-pom girl?” Holtzmann said.
There was a narrow line to walk when flirting with Erin Gilbert. If she was too outlandish she might scare her away, but she didn’t want to be so subtle that Erin would fail pick up on it, either. Unfortunately, Holtzmann had never been very good at staying on straight, narrow lines.
But to her shock, Erin took a small breath and began.
“Holtzmann can do an-y-thing,” she said, voice small and not very sure of itself. “Holtzmann can eat that spring… roll,” she tacked on at the end.
Holtzmann gaped at her.
“That is the most inspiring cheer I have ever heard in my life,” she said. “I expect I will go to my grave without hearing a better one. Then I will return as a ghost to haunt high school athletics programs, and still I will never hear a better cheer.”
Erin blushed again, prettily.
Holtzmann suffered through the last spring roll, but kept her eyes on Erin’s face. She was two-for-two on the pink cheeks.
Feeling triumphant but now more than a little bit sick, she closed the lid of the carton.
“How’s your stomach?” asked Erin.
Holtzmann winced. “She’s seen better days.”
“My stomach is a laaady,” said Holtzmann, but then she leaned forward and groaned. “An unhappy lady,” she said weakly. “I shouldn’t have taken that dare.”
“Again, you dared yourself. But I think I have some medicine in my desk to settle it, hold on.”
Erin stood and went to her desk, sliding open the bottom drawer. Holtzmann lifted her head to watch, intrigued. She had never seen inside that particular drawer before.
There were several pill bottles, lined up in ascending order by height. There was also a clear glass jar that looked like it was full of black powder.
“What’s that?” Holtzmann asked, and pointed.
“Oh,” said Erin. “Um. It’s, um, embarrassing.”
Holtzmann immediately forgot her queasiness.
“I love embarrassing,” she said, scooting forward until her face was an inch from Erin’s knee. “Tell me everything.”
Erin still looked uncomfortable, but she nodded and sank back into her squeaky chair. She began to play with her hands in her lap. Holtzmann observed and resisted the urge to imitate her.
“So you know Ghosts from Our Past?” said Erin.
“I may have heard of it, go on.”
“After Abby and I … had our falling out, I mean, after I left her … there were two copies of the book that I owned. I was scared, and I burned them.”
A new vocabulary term. Repressed pyromaniac.
“Yes, Holtzmann, with fire.”
“I like fire, too,” said Holtzmann. She leaned an elbow against the open drawer. “We have so much in common.”
Erin didn’t blush this time, but Holtzmann attributed it to distraction with her story. Holtzmann looked between Erin and the glass jar and then she understood. She raised her eyebrows at Erin questioningly.
“Yep,” said Erin. “Those are the ashes from the books.”
“Why did you keep them?”
“At first, because my friendship with Abby was over. Dead. I kept the cremated remains.”
“Cryptic,” said Holtzmann, enunciating each of the consonants.
She wasn’t being flippant. She wanted to lighten Erin’s mood, to let her know that she could talk to her without being self-conscious. Erin gave her a small smile in response to the word, and she was pleased.
“Yeah,” Erin continued. “But now I keep them because of what I have. Abby’s friendship again, but stronger. And also Patty and … you. And I don’t ever want to burn that. So the jar is there to remind me not to repeat my mistakes.”
Holtzmann thought about her apartment, where she had three framed pictures of their team. Three photographs of the Ghostbusters on her wall, as if they were family portraits.
Because they were.
But she didn’t tell Erin about that. Instead she said, “I wouldn’t worry. I don’t burn as easily as paper. I’m practically flame-retardant.”
Erin laughed sincerely, though she sounded a bit tired, and then she remembered the reason the drawer was open in the first place.
“I forgot the medicine, I’m sorry—” she started.
Holtzmann shook her head. “I’m okay,” she said. “Storytime with Erin made me feel better.”
Holtzmann decided it was time for a romantic gesture.
She reviewed her new Erin Gilbert vocabulary—posture, fish (tentatively), repressed pyromania, sentimentality—and considered how she could apply one of them.
Posture was out, almost immediately. Holtzmann’s existence was characterized by slouched shoulders, propped-up feet, and social impropriety. She wanted to show Erin how much she cared about her, but she wanted to do it without pretending to be something she wasn’t. Normally Holtzmann was decent at pretending, but for some reason … not with Erin.
For some reason, she scoffed mentally. She knew the reason.
She also eliminated fish, because “Sure” was too vague a response on which to base an entire romantic gesture. And Holtzmann was not very experienced with romantic gestures anyway, so she needed to make a solid choice.
Burning things was always fun, but Erin would probably just tell her to grab the fire extinguisher, and fire extinguishers were notorious for ruining the moment.
That left her with sentimentality.
For a moment, she considered going with fish after all, because Holtzmann did feelings even worse than she did posture.
But no. Erin deserved to be properly wooed. Sentimentality it was.
A week later, the perfect opportunity finally presented itself. Holtzmann had worked straight through multiple mealtimes (again), and so she reached into the pocket of her robe for the miniature Pringles tube she had brought just for this sort of occasion. She popped open the lid, peeled back the foil covering, and looked reverently at the first chip.
The first chip was the best chip. It was the moment Holtzmann broke her Pringles fast (even if that fast was less than a day long). It was the freshest, having been exposed to air the least amount of time. It was usually structurally sound, being on the top of the tube, unlike the broken pieces at the bottom. It was the introduction to an entire tube of salty parabolic joy.
For these reasons, when Holtzmann shared her Pringles (or any snack, for that matter) she never shared the first chip (or bite, or sip). Abby had learned that the hard way, when she had tried to steal the first M&M out of Holtzmann’s bag shortly after they had started working together.
In sum, Holtzmann was sentimental about first chips.
She thought about how Erin had connected the ashes of her book, a physical thing, with the relationships that were important to her. And so Holtzmann decided to do the same.
Admittedly, she had tried something similar with the Swiss army knife, and Erin hadn’t seemed to fully grasp the significance, but back then Holtzmann hadn’t even realized the extent of her own feelings yet, so things were certain to go better now.
She closed the lid on the Pringles tube and went to stand at the top of the stairs. Often Erin worked on the second floor with her, but today she was downstairs, talking to Patty about historical approaches to particle physics.
“Erin!” she called. “I need you. Can you come up here for a sec?”
Erin appeared moments later, looking slightly winded, as if she had jogged up the steps. Perhaps she had.
“Is everything okay?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”
Holtzmann’s train of thought was momentarily derailed by the concern in Erin’s eyes, and what that might mean, but she snapped herself back on track. She was on an important mission.
“No, I’m peachy,” she said. “I just wanted to give you something.”
She walked up to Erin until there was barely enough space to hold up the mini tube of chips between them.
“Pringles?” asked Erin.
“No,” said Holtzmann. “These are mine.”
“But I do want to give you a Pringle.”
“This is a new tube,” Holtzmann explained. “I’ve just opened it. I’m going to eat them, but before I do … I want you to have the first chip.”
She removed the lid again and presented the open container to Erin, almost like a trophy. Erin obligingly removed the top Pringle from the stack. Her fingers brushed against Holtzmann’s as she did it.
Holtzmann watched, waiting.
“Okay …” said Erin. She bit off a corner of the chip. Holtzmann had never seen anyone eat a Pringle so slowly before, and she decided in that moment that all other methods of Pringle consumption were patently inferior.
Erin finished the chip and looked at Holtzmann uncertainly. “Um, thanks,” she said. “I’ll just … be going back downstairs now … unless there’s something else?”
Holtzmann tilted her head. What had she done wrong?
“Until next time,” she choked out, even managing a half-smile.
When Erin was gone again, she sank down to the floor. She had been as clear as possible. She had given her the first chip. She didn’t understand.
She reached a hand into the Pringles tube, but she didn’t want to eat them anymore. She set the tube on the floor and pushed it away from her, sending it skidding into the wall.
This was the position Abby found her in when she came upstairs a few minutes later with a question about the energy source of her proton glove.
“… so I wanted to know, how long do you think the charge could last, assuming—”
Abby finally noticed Holtzmann’s uncharacteristic stillness and cut herself off. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Holtzmann shook her head dismally.
She pointed at the Pringles tube where it lay on its side against the wall, several chips spilling out onto the floor.
“I’ve never known you to refuse to eat something that fell on the floor,” said Abby, misinterpreting.
“No,” said Holtzmann. “Can’t you tell? One is missing. There are usually twenty-five. Now there are twenty-four.”
“Okay,” said Abby, “later I want to know how you can tell the exact number of chips immediately by sight, but right now, I need you to explain to me why the missing Pringle is a problem.”
Holtzmann picked at the hem of her pants.
“Holtz,” Abby prompted.
Abby’s face softened. “The first chip? Wow.” She paused. “I doubt Erin understood what that meant. I think you two just need to communicate better.”
Holtzmann glared at the floor. That was exactly what she had been trying to do.
Chapter 2: Alphabet
alphabet = the letters of a language arranged in their usual order
Many thanks to those who commented/left kudos! I wasn't sure if everyone would be as entertained by this idea as I was, so I very much appreciate it.
Holtzmann did not leave the firehouse that night.
She went up to the roof to think, lying down flat on her back but closing her eyes so she couldn’t see the sky. She could, however, feel the cool bricks against the strip of skin left exposed by her crop top.
She came to the conclusion that she had gotten ahead of herself in her excitement. She was obviously not ready for Erin vocabulary, not yet. She needed something more basic to begin with, a structured foundation that she could build off of. But what was smaller than a word?
Holtzmann opened her eyes, considered the individually blinking stars. She needed an Erin alphabet.
Alphabets were all about structure. They were what made written language possible, and they were always organized in a certain order.
By the time she stumbled back inside to sleep for a few hours, she had two new missions: one, learn the letters of the Erin alphabet, and two, determine what order they went in.
The best way to go about this, she hypothesized, was to observe Erin constantly for an entire day. That way she could complete both missions simultaneously.
At eight in the morning, after nearly but not quite three hours of sleep, Holtzmann rolled out from under one of the tables in the lab. No one needed to know how good she had gotten at sleeping there.
She spent a couple minutes changing clothes (well, partially) and adeptly pinning up her hair. It was the only hairstyle she knew, but as such, it was second nature. Then she heated up a blow torch and used it to warm up the gray paint on the ghost trap so she could strip it. This method was perhaps less efficient and more dangerous than simply painting over top, but it was also twice as much fun. She was planning to redecorate the trap like the hearse, white with their logo overlaid.
At precisely 8:58, she set down her blow torch, spun on her stool to face the doorway at the top of the stairs, and waited.
At 9:04, Erin appeared.
She froze when she saw Holtzmann staring at her so unabashedly, but she gave her a smile.
“Hey, Holtz,” she said. “Have a good night?”
Holtzmann nodded mutely. There were two kinds of scientific observation, participant and non-participant. In the interest of objectivity, she had decided on the latter.
When it became apparent that she was not going to provide a verbal response, Erin headed over to her desk and unzipped her jacket. She draped it over the back of her chair.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Coffee before work.”
First letter: removal of outerwear, Holtzmann internalized. To ensure she wouldn’t forget, she grabbed a Sharpie to write it down. She pushed up the left sleeve of her lab coat—only a lab coat in the sense that it was a coat she wore in the lab—and inked the information on her forearm. She blew on it and tugged her sleeve back down.
At 9:11, Erin returned holding a mug in both hands. It was one of those collectible ones from Starbucks that had cityscapes on them. Of course Erin would own tourist paraphernalia from the place she lived, thought Holtzmann.
Second letter: coffee in New York skyline mug.
Erin sat at her desk and began arranging things, despite the fact that she usually worked on the whiteboard. On the left went her laptop. On the right, a notebook and some papers. In between, that yellow #2 pencil and the coffee mug, resting on a piece of scrap paper that apparently stood in as a coaster.
Third, fourth, and fifth letters: laptop, pencil, and papers.
Erin glanced up when she was done. Holtzmann was, of course, still watching. And trying not to look suspicious as she shook her arm by her side so the Sharpie would dry.
They maintained eye contact silently for a few seconds before Erin frowned and looked away.
For the rest of the morning, Erin covered her whiteboard in formulas and functions. They were elegant and almost artistic (especially with the neon markers), and though Holtzmann could follow the majority of it, some of the math was tricky to decipher.
At one point, Erin paused such that her body blocked the precise string of variables Holtzmann was trying to get a look at. Holtzmann leaned left in her chair. Erin took a step to the left. It was almost like she knew. Holtzmann leaned further. Erin stepped. Holtzmann leaned.
Holtzmann toppled off her chair and crashed to the floor, accidentally taking several tools with her and sending them clattering across the lab.
Erin spun to look at her, face a mixture of bewilderment and ... what was that, fondness? Probably not. Holtzmann wasn’t very good at interpreting facial expressions, anyway.
She righted herself silently and straightened the tie around her neck, but Erin didn’t turn back to her numbers right away.
“It’s quiet,” she noted.
Holtzmann blinked at her. Was that supposed to be a joke? She had not exactly fallen gracefully. Or subtly. Her hip was throbbing as a reminder.
“Where’s your music?”
Oh. She had been too preoccupied with her observation of Erin to turn it on. But now she fumbled with the boom box beside her (which fortunately had not joined her on the floor), ensuring that she chose one of the songs Erin liked.
Yeah, so maybe this wasn’t entirely non-participant observation, and MIT Press would never publish a study with so many uncontrolled variables, but she was doing her best under the circumstances.
“Thanks,” said Erin. “I’ve … gotten used to it.”
Holtzmann grabbed the Sharpie. Sixth letter: music.
After the first two hours, Erin finally called out Holtzmann on her not working, so she picked up a prototype for a deionization land mine. She had already finished it a couple of days ago, and she started taking it apart and putting it back together until she could do it without looking. Much like with her hair.
At 12:47, Erin said she was going to get lunch.
“Do you want anything?” she asked. “I’m probably just going to grab a sandwich.”
Holtzmann shook her head. Said nothing. Erin almost looked like she deflated a little bit. Holtzmann wondered if she had imagined it.
“Um, okay,” Erin said. “See you soon.”
Holtzmann saluted her with two fingers and watched her head down the stairs, empty coffee mug in hand.
Seventh letter: rinse mug.
Eighth letter: get lunch.
Patty came to find her while Erin was gone.
“Holtzy,” she said, “what’ve you done to Erin?”
“Huh?” said Holtzmann. “Noooooothing.”
“She said you were being weird.” Patty considered her choice of words, and then amended herself: “Weirder than usual.”
Holtzmann leaned her head to the right until her glasses threatened to fall off. “I have been the picture of normalcy.”
Patty looked at her for a beat, and then said, “Erin was right. You are being weird. Stop.”
“Can’t,” said Holtzmann. “I’m in the middle of some very important research.”
“Nuh-uh,” Patty countered. “Erin also said you haven’t been working all day.”
“One woman’s not working is another woman’s discreetly conducted experiment.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Patty as she turned to leave.
“Me neither,” Holtzmann stage-whispered after her.
Patty went down the stairs looking uneasy.
At 1:13, Erin returned with two paper bags. She placed one on Holtzmann’s desk. Holtzmann met her eyes, confused.
“You have to eat something substantial,” said Erin. “I went to my favorite sandwich place, but they were out of grilled cheese, which is the best. So it’s bahn mi instead.”
Holtzmann couldn’t imagine what sort of sub shop sold both grilled cheese and bahn mi sandwiches. Before she unfurled the paper bag, she updated her notes.
Eighth letter: get
lunch grilled cheese if available, bahn mi otherwise.
Instead of returning to the whiteboard, Erin spent her afternoon reading recently published peer-reviewed papers, and Holtzmann spent it watching Erin read recently published peer-reviewed papers.
It was more fun than it sounded. Often, Erin’s brow furrowed when she had to reread a complicated section. Twice, she took the left side of her bottom lip between her teeth and held it there for several seconds before slowly releasing it.
Both of those times, Holtzmann stopped breathing. She thought her heart might have stopped pumping blood, too.
At 5:40, Erin sighed and dropped the article in her hands back onto the stack on her desk.
“Are you going to talk to me at all today?” she said.
Holtzmann didn’t answer.
“Well,” said Erin. “I’m going home. Abby suggested a movie night tomorrow, if you’re up for that.”
Erin put the paper coaster in the recycling bin. She straightened the stack of papers, even though they were already neat, and returned them to a desk drawer with the notebook. She zipped the laptop into its case and set it in another drawer. Holtzmann didn’t think she’d used the computer all day. She replaced the pencil in a pencil cup. She slung her jacket over her arm.
Ninth letter: straighten up.
“Goodnight, Holtz,” said Erin. She sounded resigned. Holtzmann felt guilty.
Just when she reached the stairs, Holtzmann spoke up.
“Yes,” she blurted.
“Movie night,” said Holtzmann. “Tomorrow. Yes. As long as Patty doesn’t pick a documentary again.”
Erin nodded, and smiled softly. “Okay,” she said. “Good. See you in the morning.”
Tenth letter: say goodnight.
When Erin was gone, Holtzmann looked back over her list. She had successfully recorded Erin’s alphabet—admittedly, it was probably an abridged version—and tomorrow she would try writing it out herself.
Holtzmann had to postpone her plans.
Abby, the first to arrive the next day, picked up the phone when it rang at seven in the morning.
She then texted Holtzmann, Erin, and Patty, and within the hour they were all in the hearse en route to a florist in Queens.
The ghost was a man left at the altar, and it took a frustratingly long time to coax him out of a corsage. Afterward, the owner of the shop promised them discounted bouquets for life.
Back at the firehouse, Holtzmann lounged on the couch sandwiched between Abby and Patty, waiting impatiently for Erin to finish her shower. There was still enough time in the day for at least a partial alphabet, she reasoned. Or should she abandon it until she could do it all at once?
Ultimately, the paranormal decided for her.
Kevin answered the phone this time. “Bosses,” he said, “there is a spectral herd of buffalo in Central Park.”
Abby got to her feet. “I’ll go get Erin a clean jumpsuit,” she volunteered. “She’ll probably need it.”
Erin now had three separate jumpsuits, which she rotated when one of them got slimed. Which was nearly every bust.
Holtzmann straightened in her seat and grinned at their receptionist. “Kev,” she said, “that sounded completely plausible.”
“Did Kevin just take a message without any mistakes?” asked Patty beside her. “Erin will be bummed she missed this.”
“Why?” said Holtzmann, too quickly.
“Because it’s Kevin,” said Patty. “You have seen her around him, right? What’s with you lately, baby?”
Holtzmann shrugged at the question, and then the answer appeared on the other side of the room.
Erin’s hair was still damp from the shower and she had changed into a pair of slightly too-short jeans and a brown t-shirt. She was wearing socks with tiny spaceships on them.
“Look at her socks,” said Holtzmann under her breath.
It was an innocent enough statement, but Patty must have heard something in her tone or seen something in the way she was eyeing Erin, because she groaned.
“That’s what this is about?” she said, low enough so that only Holtzmann could hear. “Honestly, Holtzy, just talk to the woman. She looks at you as stupid as you look at her.”
Holtzmann perked up at that. Did she really?
“Just tell her,” pressed Patty.
“I can’t,” Holtzmann choked out.
“Why the hell not?”
“I just can’t.”
“What can’t you do?” said Erin, who had just moved within earshot.
Patty gave Holtzmann a significant look, but she said, “Choose a favorite among my chinchillas. I love all my children equally.”
“Really?” said Patty. “Because I think you might love one of them a lot more than the others.”
“Nope,” said Holtzmann.
Erin looked utterly lost.
“Are we still on for a movie tonight?” she asked. “And where’s Abby?”
“Oh, right,” said Patty. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we got another call. A whole herd of ghost buffalo in the park! Abby went to fetch you suit number two.”
“Seriously?” Erin moaned. “But I just showered.”
“It’s not all bad,” said Holtzmann. “At least you can go into this bust with a clean slate.” She winked and tried to ignore the disapproving glare Patty was sending in her direction.
Taking down sixty buffalo took substantially longer than a single lovelorn man in a flower shop.
Afterward, it was late enough that Abby suggested they postpone movie night.
“Fine with me,” said Erin with a yawn.
Holtzmann loaded their gear in the back of the hearse and thought about how she had to further postpone her alphabet plans, too. And it was Friday, so she would have to wait the whole weekend.
“Did you know that the official scientific name of the plains bison subspecies is Bison bison bison?” asked Patty, who had been regaling them with buffalo facts on-and-off for hours.
“For real? Bison cubed?” said Holtzmann, almost distracted from her moping. She opened the door to the backseat for Erin and received a grateful but sleepy smile in response.
“Bison cubed,” Erin parroted when she sat down, giggling. Holtzmann watched her for a moment before getting into the driver’s seat. She started to navigate the hearse back toward the firehouse, foregoing her usual travel tunes so that Erin could nap in the back.
Patty, who had called shotgun, said, “When a buffalo wants to mate with a female, it just follows her around. And tries to block her view of any other males.”
“That sounds tedious,” said Abby.
“Yeah, right?” said Patty. “Like, make your move already, buffalo.”
Holtzmann pushed down on the gas pedal a little too hard.
Preparation was usually on the list of things Holtzmann avoided—along with matching socks, warning labels, and “healthy” snack foods, what an oxymoron—but for the Erin Gilbert alphabet she made an exception.
On Sunday night in her apartment, she soldered ten tiny gears together (one for each letter of the alphabet) until they formed a larger surface of interlocking parts, with a circumference slightly larger than the base of a Starbucks collector’s mug.
When she woke up on Monday morning, she Googled establishments selling grilled cheese and bahn mi sandwiches in Manhattan.
At 8:10 a.m., she took the subway to the firehouse and opened Erin’s desk drawers. She removed the laptop from its sleeve and placed it on the left. She arranged the papers and notebook on the right. She sharpened the #2 pencil and placed it in between. Just above the pencil, she added the newly made metal coaster.
At 8:45, she brewed the coffee downstairs, poured it into the New York mug, and mixed in one-and-a-quarter spoonfuls of sugar. She sprinkled a pinch of hazelnut powder on top, which came from nuts she had cracked in her own nutcracker. The nuts might have been slightly electrically charged as a result. Holtzmann reasoned that it would make the coffee extra effective.
At 8:50, she positioned herself just inside the door to the firehouse.
Erin entered at 8:58, and she jumped when she saw Holtzmann hovering next to the threshold like a butler.
“Holtz! What the—”
“May I take your sweater, my lady?” Holtzmann said.
Erin looked confused, which was becoming a theme lately, but she shrugged out of her sweater—Holtzmann sincerely wondered where she had found a button-up cardigan with blue-and-beige checkers and tiny bows at the wrists—and handed it over.
Holtzmann took the sweater and offered Erin the mug of coffee in exchange.
Erin sniffed it. She took a sip, and the muscles in her face relaxed almost at once.
“Did you make this?”
“It’s delicious. Thank you.”
Holtzmann bowed—she was still holding the sweater, she may as well fully look the part—and then scampered up the stairs to prepare the sixth letter of the alphabet.
She draped the sweater over Erin’s chair with care and slid a Devo CD into her boom box. “Girl U Want” started to play, which was maybe a bit too on the money, but Erin probably wouldn’t notice.
Erin came upstairs slowly, nose buried in the steam of her mug. She made it all the way to her desk before she registered the arrangement of her possessions.
Erin looked up at Holtzmann. Holtzmann looked back.
She could actually feel her heart pounding against her ribcage. She wondered if Erin could hear it.
Erin studied the desk again, assessing it, Holtzmann thought, and she felt like she herself was being assessed at the same time. Then Erin placed the mug on the coaster of tiny gears, sat down, and started to work.
Holtzmann let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. This was good, right? She had passed? She hoped this was good.
Letters one through six were finished. She consulted her list.
Seventh letter: rinse mug.
Eighth letter: get
lunch grilled cheese if available, bahn mi otherwise.
Holtzmann glanced at her watch. It was only 9:24. For the next two hours, she tinkered with some scrap metal she had found while dumpster diving. Some of her best ideas came from inattentive tinkering.
At 11:30, Holtzmann went to stand by Erin’s desk. Erin was too engrossed to look up.
“Erin,” she started, “Dr. Gilbert. Light of—”
But Erin made eye contact at that moment, so Holtzmann thankfully didn’t have to finish the epithet.
“I have to go out,” she said. “Are you done with your coffee? I’ll take the cup downstairs.”
Erin nodded, albeit slowly. There was something akin to disbelief behind her eyes, like she suspected that Holtzmann was preparing a trick or a joke. When she merely reached out for the mug, Erin stopped her hand with her own.
Several of Holtzmann’s neural synapses misfired. Touching sparks hand Erin help, she thought.
“Holtz, why are you doing all this?” Erin asked.
Holtzmann stared at the spot between Erin’s eyes, 98.5% certain she was incapable of answering such a question in this moment.
“Well, I …” Erin started when she didn’t receive a response, but she trailed off, and Holtzmann thought maybe she wasn’t sure what to say, either. It was oddly encouraging.
Erin stood from her chair, motionless for several seconds, and then tentatively wrapped her arms around Holtzmann. Holtzmann didn’t react initially, too overwhelmed by the combination of Erin touch (soft) and Erin scent (coconut shampoo) and Erin breath (warm) all at once.
She was normally such a tactile person, but being hugged by Erin—and being hugged by Erin—had a way of making formerly easy things very difficult.
“Thank you,” Erin said, mostly into Holtzmann’s neck. “It’s like you have somehow made everything go perfectly. I never feel like I get to have perfect days. And the coaster. The coaster is beautiful.”
Holtzmann’s brain finally caught up to the onslaught on her senses, and she hugged Erin back. Probably too tightly. Definitely too long. She didn’t care.
Until she began to worry that she was going to physically explode, and she was fairly certain that coating Erin in her own blood and plasma would ruin a perfect day, so she detached herself.
“Bebacksoon,” she mumbled, and she grabbed the mug and shuffled down the stairs, not wanting to risk dropping it if she took the fire pole.
At 12:50, Holtzmann returned with two paper bags. Patty and Abby both gave her knowing looks, so Patty must have updated her about the situation. Or maybe Abby had updated Patty about the Pringles. They were probably in cahoots now. Holtzmann was unsure how she felt about that.
At 12:51, she dangled one of the bags in front of Erin.
“Lunch break?” Holtzmann offered. Erin grinned and closed her laptop screen without even looking at it.
They sat at the table that marked the spot where Holtzmann’s lab (roughly 80% of the room) threatened to invade Erin’s workspace (the remaining 20%), and they discussed the merits of aluminum alloys over their grilled cheese sandwiches, and Holtzmann thought then that she might be in love.
Holtzmann completed the ninth letter (straighten up) after dinner around 8 p.m., when Abby called upstairs that it was time for movie night.
Patty did pick the film, but she didn’t pick a documentary. She chose E.T. instead. The four of them settled in front of the TV on the spacious couch they may have purchased using the mayor’s money.
Holtzmann decided she might as well go for broke, so she sat directly next to Erin. Well. In between Erin and the popcorn.
She was tempted to fling herself on top of Erin and wrap herself around her in a koala-esque fashion. But as glorious as it would have been to cling to Erin like a small Australian marsupial, that was not part of the alphabet. And today was about the alphabet. Holtzmann tried not to think about how their sides were completely pressed together.
By the time E.T. phoned home, Erin was asleep.
Erin had worked hard all day, so it wasn’t surprising that she dozed off midway through. What was surprising was that she dozed off on top of Holtzmann. Her head drooped to Holtzmann’s shoulder and her arm flopped over her stomach and even one of her ankles crossed over Holtzmann’s and how was she capable of doing all that in her sleep?
Holtzmann decided to embrace the new situation. Literally. She disentangled her arm from where it was stuck between her and Erin and wrapped it around Erin’s shoulders.
Sleeping Erin maneuvered herself even closer, if that was possible.
Holy Ghost of Christmas Past, thought Holtzmann. Is Erin Gilbert cuddling with me?
She turned her head to catch Patty or Abby’s eye, and both of them were staring back slack-jawed. Abby opened her mouth wide in a silent scream. Patty gave Holtzmann a thumbs up.
This is how I die, thought Holtzmann. She was strangely at peace with the thought.
Half an hour later, Abby was asleep on the far end of the couch and was snoring lightly. Patty had removed herself from the couch in favor of an armchair to herself.
And then something magical happened.
Holtzmann was carefully staring at the screen and not sleeping Erin, definitely not sleeping Erin, when she felt something brush against her ear.
Erin was awake again, looking guilty, her hand hovering near Holtzmann’s face. She straightened and moved away.
“Sorry,” she whispered sheepishly. “I—your hair was falling out and, um, it looked, um, I’m sorry.”
“You can play with it,” said Holtzmann, trying not to sound as enthusiastic as she felt. “Please do.” Okay, she had definitely failed at suppressing her enthusiasm.
“Yeah?” said Erin.
Holtzmann nodded and turned back to the screen, waiting hopefully.
A few minutes later, Erin twirled a few strands of hair from the loose poof on top of Holtzmann’s head between her fingers. Then she got braver, and started detaching pieces from the small twisted bun in the back.
“Is it okay if I take it down?” she asked.
“Go for it,” said Holtzmann, proud of herself for stringing together a full sentence with Erin’s fingers tangled in her hair.
Before long her hair was completely rid of its bobby pins, a first-time-occurrence at the firehouse while other people were present, and Erin methodically but absentmindedly ran her fingers through it for the rest of the movie. Erin Gilbert playing with her hair was at least two dreams come true, possibly two and a half.
Holtzmann was so comfortable that she accidentally fell asleep herself, just as the bicycle began to fly on-screen.
She woke up to Erin’s (truly lovely) voice and a completely dark room.
“Holtz,” she said, “the movie’s over.”
Holtzmann squinted. The television was off. Abby and Patty were gone. One of them had presumably put away the popcorn bowl. She was slouched down in her spot and Erin was sitting curled up sideways, facing her.
“Don’t wanna move,” she said.
“Let’s not, then,” said Erin. She tapped the fabric of the couch. “It’s late, and this is really high-quality furniture. I doubt sleeping on it will interfere with my spine alignment.”
Holtzmann smiled and repositioned herself on the other end. It was such a large couch that there was plenty of room for both of them to lie down without being on top of each other.
She wished it were smaller.
Holtzmann noticed then that her left sleeve had bunched up while she was asleep, and there, on her skin in the open, was the alphabet list.
She tensed. How long had it been like that? She hoped Erin hadn’t seen it. She readjusted the sleeve, but not before reminding herself of the final letter.
“G’night, Gilbert,” she said.
“Sweet dreams, Holtzmann.”
Tenth letter: say goodnight.
Chapter 3: Pronunciation
pronunciation = a particular way of making the sound of a word
Hi again, salut, привет, etc.
I loved, loved reading your comments. <3 And hey look, we're past the halfway mark already. Hope you enjoy!
Finally, THANK YOU to MagnaLi for the incredible art in this chapter (and chapter 1)!
Holtzmann had never had such a nice pillow before.
“Hm,” the pillow agreed.
She rolled off the couch in shock—a perfectly normal reaction to discovering one’s pillow has become sentient—and narrowly avoided smacking her head on the coffee table. She rubbed her eyes blearily.
The pillow had been Erin Gilbert’s thigh.
Her first instinct was to climb right back on top of her Erin pillow, but that would have been practically impossible without waking her. Holtzmann cursed herself for ruining a good thing.
But now that she was awake, she needed to figure out what the next stage of her language learning process was going to be.
Holtzmann drew her knees close to her chest and watched Erin sleep. She was not a pretty sleeper. Holtzmann wasn’t either; she had seen a picture once, courtesy of Patty, and it was … truly unfortunate.
But Erin’s not-pretty sleeping was kind of beautiful.
Conscious Erin was disciplined. She was more aware of social conventions than Holtzmann, and she tried a little harder to follow them. In sleep, all of that fell away.
Her posture, the first vocabulary word, was no longer stiff. She practically melted into the couch. Her bangs, instead of hanging straight, fell messily in different directions. Her face, smushed against the cushion with her mouth hanging open slightly, was completely devoid of tension or anxiety.
Holtzmann wanted suddenly and very badly to touch her again. So she lifted a finger and placed it lightly, almost reverently, against the side of Erin’s nose.
Holtzmann had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing. It was possibly the most ridiculous snore she had ever heard. It sounded like a grunting piglet with a head cold.
Sound. That gave Holtzmann an idea. She was going to discover every single noise Erin made. The pronunciation of the Erin Gilbert language.
The best way to start off a day was with breakfast, so Holtzmann decided to begin her pronunciation analysis with the way Erin sounded eating.
Was that creepy? Nah, she decided, not if it was in the name of love.
But to hear Erin eat, there had to be food, and they were currently at the firehouse without any prepared food except stale popcorn, so Holtzmann got to work.
Erin woke an hour later, still too early for Patty or Abby to have arrived, definitely too early for Kevin. She stumbled into the kitchen tugging at her clothes from yesterday to straighten them, already returning to her Conscious Erin image. At the same time, Holtzmann thought her shoulders looked ever-so-slightly more relaxed.
“Hi, Holtz.” Her voice was softer and more mumble-y than usual, which Holtzmann attributed to just waking up. She would be very much not opposed to hearing that voice every morning.
“Are you cooking?” Erin said.
Holtzmann grinned at her toothily. “How could you tell?”
“Um … you’re wearing an apron. And an oven mitt.” That was true. Holtzmann’s apron was flowery green and the oven mitt was shaped and patterned like a tabby cat.
“Also you’re in the kitchen with a waffle iron on the stove and flour in your hair.”
Holtzmann raised an eyebrow and lifted a hand to her head. “Is there flour?”
“Yes,” Erin laughed. “But you left your hair down.” Her voice got quieter. “It’s pretty.”
Any possible response died instantly before it could reach Holtzmann’s lips. She felt her cheeks traitorously heat up. That wasn’t fair. She was supposed to be the one making Erin blush, not the other way around. She turned quickly to face the counter.
“Do you know how to make waffles?” Erin asked, still standing safely on the other side of the kitchen.
“Oh, not at all,” said Holtzmann. Come to think of it, she probably should have consulted a recipe. “Why?”
“It kind of smells like it’s burning,” said Erin.
Holtzmann jumped and unplugged the waffle iron, which was smoking on the sides. She touched the iron portion unthinkingly with her uncovered hand, yelped loudly, and then used the handle to open it.
“Did you just burn yourself?” asked Erin, coming to stand beside her.
“No,” Holtzmann lied. She stared down sadly at the very dark waffle on the stove. There was a tiny flame dancing merrily on the upper left edge. She pinched it out.
“Wow,” said Erin. “It’s … it’s really burned. Like, that was actual fire.”
“The batter started out that color, though,” Holtzmann defended herself.
“It started out almost black?”
“Yeah. I put chocolate in it. Lots of chocolate. Probably mostly chocolate.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Ruining your breakfast, obviously.”
She kept her eyes trained on the waffle disaster but in her peripheral vision, she saw Erin scooting closer.
“This is my waffle?”
“Was supposed to be, yeah.”
“I’m going to eat it, then.”
“You are?” Holtzmann looked up finally. Erin had her jaw set firmly, sort of like the way it was right before she had punched the reporter, but without the anger.
“It’s my waffle,” said Erin. “I’ll do what I want with it. Besides, I like chocolate.”
Holtzmann had to look away again. She was almost afraid she might cry, which would be a completely unacceptable reaction. But Erin was just being so nice, again, well, all the time, and she was so smart, too, and so, so attractive, like so attractive …
Holtzmann shook her head, like a wet dog, and focused on gaining control over her tear ducts as she pried the waffle out of the iron. The overcooked edges were especially difficult to get loose. She winced. Making Erin eat bad food was going to screw up her data. But there was no turning back now.
“Go sit at the table,” she instructed Erin. “You’ve already seen enough of the ugly underbelly of waffle cuisine.”
Erin went, but she added as she left, in that soft mumble-y voice again, “I bet the waffle has a nice underbelly.”
It was such a stupidly cute thing to say that Holtzmann felt them all over again. The feelings. This was getting out of hand.
She managed to get the partially mutilated waffle onto a plate. There was no maple syrup in the refrigerator, but there was fudge syrup. Holtzmann figured it fit the theme of a chocolate waffle made (and burned) from scratch, so she drizzled some of the fudge over top.
She presented her masterpiece to Erin, who was waiting obediently at the round wooden table that the team used for dinner when they stayed late. Holtzmann perched on top of the table itself and resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and avoid having to watch.
“Oh, wow,” said Erin, eyes widening at the fudge syrup. Holtzmann guessed her standard breakfast food was something along the lines of quinoa oatmeal or a vegetable omelet. “Um, do you have a fork?”
“Right,” said Holtzmann, snapping her fingers. “Utensils.”
She darted back to the kitchen, but, no, of course there wasn’t a fork, because usually the only food that ever came inside the firehouse was pizza, Chinese take-out, and the occasional sandwich. Spoons they had aplenty, thanks to Abby.
She returned with a pair of chopsticks.
Erin made a valiant effort. Unlike Holtzmann, she knew how to hold chopsticks correctly. Holtzmann generally just treated them like spears.
Erin carved out a bite of the waffle and lifted it to her mouth with only the smallest flicker of hesitation in her eyes. Holtzmann held her breath. And listened.
“Mmmm,” said Erin. It was much too over-the-top and exaggerated to be sincere. Holtzmann’s shoulders drooped.
“You don’t have to—” she started, but Erin cut off an even bigger piece and shoved it into her mouth.
“Delicious,” she said thickly, licking some stray syrup off her lips.
Holtzmann laughed at her and shook her head.
“It’s really not that bad,” Erin said. “Has a sort of … smoky flavor.”
“Yeah, probably from the smoke.”
Erin shrugged. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
Holtzmann shook her head again. “I only made enough batter for one waffle. And I think I may have ruined the waffle iron. And three mixing bowls.”
“Why would you need three bowls to make waffle batter? What did you even use?”
“Chefs don’t cook and tell, Erin,” Holtzmann chided, miming turning a key next to her lips.
“You can share mine, then,” said Erin. She deftly carved out another piece—she was getting really good at that—and plucked it up between the two chopsticks, raising it toward Holtmann’s mouth.
Erin was going to feed her? She certainly wouldn’t say no to that.
Holtzmann leaned forward to close her lips around the blackened waffle. Erin was right. It wasn’t terrible. The fudge helped. But it definitely wasn’t good, either.
“Sorry,” she said again, making a face at what she’d eaten.
“Are you kidding?” said Erin. “This is the best waffle I’ve ever had.”
“Okay, now I know you’re lying—”
“It’s the best waffle I’ve ever had,” Erin continued, “because you made it.”
Holtzmann didn’t have an answer to that.
Erin took another bite. “Yum,” she said, eyes bright.
Holtzmann had been wandering around the lab for five minutes now. She couldn’t find it anywhere.
“Erin,” she whined.
“Where’s my phone?”
“Why would I know where your phone is?” said Erin, not looking up from her work.
“Well … do you?”
Erin sighed. She had two principal sighs, Holtzmann had discovered: a short huff to express frustration and a longer one for resignation. This was the longer one.
“It’s on the corner table next to the Nutcracker,” she said.
Holtzmann retrieved her cell phone and found the webpage she was looking for: a list of the most common English words with differing pronunciations.
“Erin?” she said. “How do you say the word that means the sister of your parent? Like the bug, or like … the first syllable of ontology?”
“Um,” said Erin, neon purple marker hovering over something about the transfer of electrons. “Like the bug. Ant.”
“Ah,” said Holtzmann. “Me too.”
Erin started to go back to her equations, apparently thinking the question was a one-time occurrence. She was very wrong.
“How about the clothes you wear to bed?” said Holtzmann. Erin lifted her marker from the board again.
“Puh-jam-uhs,” she said. “Like jam.”
“I say puh-jahm-uhs,” said Holtzmann. “Fascinating.”
“Um. Is it?”
“Yes.” Holtzmann looked back down at her list. “The ocean where Keira Knightley is,” she said.
“I … what?”
“Oh. Caribbean. If I’m saying the movie title, stress on ‘bee.’ Otherwise, stress on ‘rib.’”
“Great answer,” said Holtzmann sincerely. “How about when you don’t want one thing, but you also don’t want the other one. You want …”
“Nee-ther,” said Erin. “Holtz, how long are you going to do this?”
“I don’t know.” A beat. “How about the thing on top of buildings where Santa’s reindeer land?”
She did it for another hour and ten minutes.
There was one more data point that Holtzmann wanted badly for her pronunciation study, but she wasn’t sure how to get it. She decided to do preliminary research with Abby and Patty.
She vaulted onto the arm of Patty’s chair but miscalculated and landed half on her lap.
“Holtzy! Off!” Patty huffed in irritation and pushed her to the side.
“I have an important question,” said Holtzmann.
“Does Erin sing?”
“What, like professionally?”
“No, I mean … in general. At all. To herself. In the car.”
Patty made a face. “I don’t know. I’ve known her less time than you.”
Holtzmann sighed dramatically.
“Why don’t you go ask her if she sings?”
Holtzmann gaped at her. What a ridiculous suggestion.
“Why do you want to know, anyway?”
“Linguistic research, of course,” said Holtzmann, getting up to leave.
“If you’re trying to romance her, shouldn’t you be the one doing the serenading?” Patty said.
Holtzmann narrowed her eyes.
She targeted Abby next, who was running tests on her electronic helmet.
Abby looked up obligingly.
“What do you know about … Erin … and singing?”
“She has a beautiful singing voice, if that’s what you mean,” said Abby.
Holtzmann nodded eagerly. “She does?”
“Yeah. She sang at an open mic once in high school. But it went really badly. I mean, she did great, but the kids booed her and called her Ghost Girl, and she never did anything like that again.”
“Oh.” Holtzmann was furious. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could boo Erin Gilbert off a stage, perfect anxious nerd that she was.
“Thank you for the intel,” she said.
“You’re welcome. But shouldn’t you be more concerned with your own singing voice? You’re the one trying to get the girl, after all.”
Yep. Abby and Patty were definitely working together.
“Et tu, Yates?” Holtzmann said.
Abby just smiled at her innocently. Holtzmann headed back to the lab.
She briefly attempted climbing up the fire pole, realized quickly how very physically incapable she was of such an activity, and jogged up the stairs as usual.
She needed a believable cover. She couldn’t just flat-out request that Erin sing to her, as much as that sounded like a top-notch way to spend an afternoon.
Holtzmann sidled up to Erin, who had moved on from the purple marker to orange, but Erin spoke first.
“Holtz,” she said, “I thought of one for you.” She looked proud of herself.
“Huh?” said Holtzmann, still focused on ways to trick Erin into singing.
“How do you pronounce the word people say at the end of a prayer?”
“Amen,” said Holtzmann, catching on. “Long A. Why, you wanna take me to church?”
Erin blushed deeply and Holtzmann gleefully added to her tally.
“No,” she said. “I mean, sure. I mean, no! I mean, interesting, I say it with a short A.”
Holtzmann smirked at her. “I have a question for you, too.”
“Different sort,” said Holtzmann. She leaned forward onto Erin’s desk. “Do you want to join my Christmas caroling group this season?”
Erin’s brow furrowed. “You have a Christmas caroling group?”
“Who’s in it?”
Holtzmann balked. She hadn’t planned that far. “Uh, me,” she improvised. “Kevin. Benny. Donna.”
Beats me, Holtzmann thought. “A childhood love,” she said.
Erin blushed again, but this time Holtzmann wasn’t sure why.
“I guess so,” she said. “Sure, Holtz, I’ll be in your caroling group.”
“Excellent. So, shall we practice?”
“What, right now?”
“I have to make sure your voice will blend well with the group. And match our style.”
“You have a style?”
“Naturally. Secular Christmas … punk … jazz.”
“I. Okay. Um. Wait. Why now? It’s not even November.”
“Caroling is serious business,” said Holtzmann. “You can’t go in unprepared. The inter-group rivalries are crazy.”
Erin shifted uncomfortably. “Can we do it later?” she asked. “Invite me to your next rehearsal or something.”
Holtzmann had forgotten that inventing a fake carolers’ group meant inventing fake rehearsals. This was why crime gangs always assigned someone the job of planning. It was difficult to be a one-woman gang.
“Okay, sure,” she said anyway. “No problem.”
It was a significant problem. What was she going to do now?
Erin stepped out of the lab after a while to take a shower (they had spent the night at the firehouse, after all) and Holtzmann was still no closer to thinking of a solution.
She was also out of snacks, so she wandered downstairs again.
“Hey, boss!” said Kevin from his desk.
Holtzmann was surprised. He generally addressed his questions to Abby, slightly less often to Erin, occasionally to Patty, and least of all to her.
“Kev?” she said.
“Dr. Gilbert told me about your caroling group.”
Holtzmann’s stomach lurched. Damn it. Now she’d have to explain to Erin why she had lied to her—
“Why didn’t you tell me I was in it?”
Holtzmann blinked. “What?”
“Well, Dr. Gilbert said she heard I was in your group and she was maybe going to be, too. I said of course I was, because she’s my boss and you’re my boss. But why didn’t you tell me first? I have to make sure the rehearsals don’t conflict with the hide-and-seek schedule.”
Holtzmann breathed a sigh of relief. “They won’t,” she said. “They won’t conflict with anything,” she added darkly to herself.
“Oh, great! I can see why you picked Dr. Gilbert to add to the team,” he added.
“Well, because she sings so pretty, of course.”
Holtzmann stepped closer to the reception desk, gripping the edge a little too tightly. “How do you know that?” she demanded. She sounded crazed even to her own ears. “Have you heard her?”
“Yeah, sure, yesterday,” said Kevin. “She sings in the shower all the time.”
Eyes bulging, Holtzmann backed away from Kevin and sprinted down the hallway to the bathroom. It was such a simple solution that she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before.
She skidded to a stop outside the door, trying to slow her breathing, before pressing her ear against the wood. At first, she didn’t hear anything. And then …
It was soft and faint, muffled by the door and the sound of running water, but sure enough, Erin was singing.
“… when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight.”
She wasn’t just singing; she was singing a love song. A love song usually sung by a man. And she sounded better than Frank Sinatra doing it. Holtzmann’s knees felt weak. She let herself sink to the floor against the door.
“Yes, you’re lovely, with your smile so warm …”
Kevin had wildly underestimated her singing voice. It was much more than “so pretty.” It was clear and smooth and lilting and soft and expressive. Holtzmann closed her eyes so that she could focus all of her energy on the only sense that mattered in that instant.
As an added bonus, if her eyes were closed, she could almost imagine that Erin was singing to her.
“There is nothing for me but to love you, and the way you look tonight.”
Obviously, stage three of the Erin Gilbert language learning process was a success.
But Holtzmann thought she might never be able to peel herself back off of this floor.
Chapter 4: Syntax
syntax = the way in which words are put together
Happy Halloween Eve Eve, everybody!! Anyone else going as Holtz? Or perhaps Holtz crossed with a sleep-deprived college student? (Me.)
Anyway, here's the penultimate chapter. As always, please tell me what you think. And if you want, what your Halloween costume is. :D
Holtzmann was in a rut.
Not theoretically—she knew what the fourth step was. It was time to build sentences from her letters and sounds and words. She needed to figure out how they all came together.
But in practice, she was completely at a loss. She had never gotten to this stage with someone before, and it was more than a little intimidating. A large part of her had expected failure before it came to this.
In any case, she needed to figure it out soon, because she had been incredibly unhelpful lately, work-wise. Pining impeded her productivity.
But it was difficult not to pine, when Erin was standing on the other side of the room being perfect. Holtzmann wondered at how she never seemed to run out of math to do. Surely she had solved all the mysteries of the universe by now.
Well, except for the fact that her colleague wanted to make out with her. Badly. Erin remained stubbornly unaware of that.
Holtzmann let out a long plaintive sigh.
“Holtz,” said Erin, “why don’t you just go home? You’ll feel better about whatever it is tomorrow.”
Holtzmann doubted that. Plus, her apartment didn’t have any Erin Gilberts in it, a very serious drawback.
Erin set down her markers and turned to face her.
“Do you … want to talk about anything?” she asked, looking uncertain.
Holtzmann shook her head quickly, eyes wide.
“Okay … then do you want to help me with what I’m working on, maybe?”
Holtzmann nodded eagerly. Perfect. An insight into the way the pieces fit into the whole. She half-jogged, half-tripped over to Erin’s whiteboard.
Erin pointed at her calculations and started to explain. “So I thought if we reversed the polarity in the containment chamber a little earlier, like as the ghosts enter, it might permanently deionize them. They wouldn’t be able to escape when we open it, unless we flipped the switch again.”
“That’s brilliant,” Holtzmann said. “You’re such a clever particle physicist.”
Cue blush number five.
But the compliment was true. This, Holtzmann realized, was a sentence of Erin Gilbert. She was a genius, but a humble one. And Holtzmann had already known that, before she learned any vocabulary or letters or pronunciation—so maybe, she thought, maybe with Erin, step four wouldn’t be so difficult after all.
“So … could you make something to test the theory?” Erin asked.
“Yes,” Holtzmann agreed immediately. “I’ll make a mini unit to scale and reverse engineer some ectoplasm into an imitation entity.”
“Really? You can do that?” Erin looked at her admiringly. Then she frowned. “Wait, you have ectoplasm?”
“Yes, I’ve preserved some.” Holtzmann grinned. “It’s in those jars in the kitchen.”
“… I thought that was jam.”
“It’s definitely not jam.”
Erin looked horrified. “I considered putting it on toast.”
Holtzmann tilted her head thoughtfully and wondered what would happen to a human who ingested ectoplasm. Given Erin’s typical experience during busts, she probably already had.
But instead she said, “We have toast?”
Minutes later, Holtzmann had her head—and most of her torso—stuck in the dumpster behind the firehouse, looking for interesting metals to use in the miniature unit, when she heard the scream.
She bobbed out immediately. That was Erin’s scream. It was one of the first sounds she had learned, before she even began the language-learning process.
She abandoned her small pile of discoveries in the alley and sprinted back around to the front of the firehouse, flinging open the front doors. The main room downstairs was empty, even Kevin’s desk. She bolted for the stairs.
Holtzmann burst onto the second floor out-of-breath. The first thing she saw was Kevin standing by the top step with what looked like a dog leash in his hands. The second was Patty wrestling a ghost buffalo back into the containment unit, doing a remarkable job all by herself. The third was Abby kneeling on the floor, hand over her mouth.
The fourth was Erin, unconscious.
After Erin was released from the hospital, they drove to her apartment and started fluffing up the couch cushions to make her comfortable.
That is, Abby and Patty fluffed the cushions. Holtzmann simply hovered awkwardly in the doorway and then found a corner to sit in.
She was in the same room as Erin—she couldn’t bring herself to leave—but she had positioned herself as far away from the couch as possible—she couldn’t bring herself to stand any closer, either. She sat on the floor, making herself as small as she could and wishing she could be smaller.
She had lost track of how long she had been tugging at the unraveling laces of her boots and staring at the wall across from her (more accurately, not staring at Erin). Erin’s apartment was ridiculously spotless. It looked more like a suite in a high-end hotel than a place someone actually lived. As a result, it was difficult to fixate on a certain piece of the wall. It was all too clean.
The walls in Holtzmann’s apartment had all sorts of interesting patterns. The area near the floor where she’d scuffed her shoe, sort of in the shape of a gumdrop candy. The peeling wallpaper leaving a wobbly orange streak beneath, a bit like a proton stream. The paint splatter further up—
Abby had abandoned her pillow-fluffing to kneel in front of her, looking concerned.
“She’s going to be fine, like the doctor said,” Abby said softly. “She’s just knocked out from the meds right now. She doesn’t even have a concussion.”
“I know.” Holtzmann pulled harder on her laces.
“It wasn’t your fault. None of us imagined the buffalo would be able to get out like that.”
“But you told me I shouldn’t try to keep five in the same unit we’ve never had animals in there before I should’ve known shouldn’t have been so reckless.” It all came out in one sentence, because she was having trouble separating her thoughts into distinct chunks.
“It’s not your fault,” Abby repeated. “We’re not mad at you. Erin won’t be, either.”
Holtzmann made a dissenting sound in her throat. “Wish you were you should be.”
Patty came up beside Abby. Holtzmann was beginning to reconsider her choice of locale, because now she felt trapped in the corner.
“Holtzy, baby, why don’t you go home, come back tomorrow?”
It was almost exactly what Erin had said to her in the firehouse, before.
Holtzmann started blinking quickly to keep herself from crying. She needed everyone to leave. Or to start yelling at her. The unquestionable forgiveness was too much. She’d screwed up. She’d hurt Erin. She’d hurt the most beautiful creature on the planet, probably in the universe. She couldn’t believe she had messed up this badly.
“Staying,” she said on a shaky exhale.
“It’s past midnight,” Abby said to Patty. “None of us should be staying, really. Well, I can spend the night here, just in case.”
“I will,” Holtzmann volunteered, more forceful than she had intended.
“Are you sure?” asked Abby doubtfully. “You haven’t even looked at her properly since it happened.”
“I will,” Holtzmann said again.
“Okay,” said Abby, though she still looked uncertain.
She disappeared for a moment and returned with a pack of bandages and a tube of Neosporin.
“For her stitches,” she explained. “And when she wakes up, make sure she gets in her actual bed.”
Holtzmann swallowed but reached out to take the supplies and set them down on the floor beside her. Neither Abby nor Patty had seen it happen, but based on Erin’s injuries they’d guessed that one of the buffalo had rammed into her from behind and thrown her across the room.
“You should get some sleep, too,” said Abby. “Erin’s got a great guest room.”
“Yeah,” Patty agreed, “The girl must be loaded.”
“Columbia,” said Abby simply, pronouncing it like a curse word.
They both gave Holtzmann awkward hugs—awkward because Holtzmann stayed in her balled-up position—and told Erin goodbye before leaving, though she was still asleep.
Holtzmann unsteadily got to her feet to turn off all the lights, except for a lamp, and to lock the door behind Abby and Patty. Not that it was a very good locking mechanism. They’d forgotten Erin’s things in their rush to the hospital, so Holtzmann had had to pick the lock to get into the apartment. It had taken seconds.
Maybe when Erin was properly asleep in her bed, she’d work on making the lock more secure. Erin must have tools around here somewhere.
Holtzmann turned around again, pressing her back against the door and realizing how much physically closer she was to Erin now. She watched the slow rise and fall of Erin’s chest and hated herself.
Then the bookcase near the entrance caught her eye. Holtzmann almost smiled at all the titles, most about particle physics, a few about the paranormal. She moved closer.
On the middle shelf, just below eye level, there was a single framed photograph. Her breath caught when she saw it, and she picked it up. It was the four of them in their new headquarters right after signing the lease, clustered around the fire pole and grinning at the photographer (the realtor). Holtzmann liked this picture. She’d jumped on Abby’s back to be higher up. Patty had been caught in the middle of a laugh. Erin just looked warm, and happy.
It was one of the pictures Holtzmann had framed and hung on her own wall. She wondered for a moment if Erin, too, thought of them as a family.
She might not think that way anymore. At least not about Holtzmann.
It was difficult to believe that hours ago, she’d been preparing to build a prototype with Erin. That yesterday she’d woken up on top of her leg.
Holtzmann sat down again, right in front of the bookcase, barely able to see the outline of Erin over the arm of the couch. She hugged her knees and started tugging her laces again, more and more insistently. She was deadly silent. But inside her mind, it was louder than she could bear.
After an uncountable period of time—it could have been several minutes; it could have been hours—Holtzmann whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Erin, of course, didn’t answer.
“I’m—I’m so sorry. I had this whole plan, and today I was trying to put everything together, because that’s how syntax works, you know? But I—I couldn’t, can’t put things together. I just—I just make them fall apart and break them—you.”
She was away from the bookcase now, moving haltingly over to the side of the couch. She could see some of the stitches. A neat row of them ran across Erin’s forehead just above her brow, and another, the skin more inflamed, on her forearm. There were probably more under her clothing, bandaged.
This was medicated sleep, so Erin wasn’t her beautiful, messy, un-pretty unconscious self. She was too contained. Holtzmann lifted one of her arms so that it flopped off the side on the couch, trying to fix the image. It still wasn’t right.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
She didn’t notice that she had finally started crying until a tear splashed on Erin’s face underneath her, and she hastily but gently wiped it off. She sat on the floor and let her forehead fall against the fabric of the couch.
Please, let her hate me when she wakes up, Holtzmann thought.
Then, she felt the couch shift.
She looked up. Erin blinked and opened her eyes straight into Holtzmann’s. The sudden eye contact after a period of one-sided staring was jarring. Holtzmann shrunk back under her gaze until her back pressed against Erin’s coffee table.
“Hi,” Erin said. It was the first word she had spoken to her since before the accident. Holtzmann didn’t answer.
Erin leaned up on her elbow and winced when she put pressure on the stitches. She gave up and lay back down.
“Are you okay?” she said, head turned sideways to hold Holtzmann’s eyes.
It was an absurd, unfair question. And it was absurd and unfair that Erin was worried about her when it was her fault that she was hurt.
It was hard to put all that into a monosyllabic response, which was all Holtzmann felt capable of at the moment. But she did her best, and managed something that sounded like “Nrmph.”
Maybe she misinterpreted something because of the dim lighting, but Erin looked like she actually understood the meaning behind the sound. Holtzmann’s chest felt tight for multiple reasons. How was she supposed to deal with sadness and love and being understood all at once? She could barely handle one emotion at a time.
“Holtz,” said Erin, “have you been crying?”
Holtzmann shook her head, which was futile because she was already crying again as she did it. She felt the tears track hotly down her cheeks and added shame to her list of feelings.
“Don’t—don’t,” said Erin. Her voice broke, and now Holtzmann had not only physically hurt her favorite person, but she’d emotionally hurt her too.
“Come here,” said Erin. She managed to maneuver herself into a mostly seated position among the pillow nest Abby and Patty had created for her.
Holtzmann scooted infinitesimally nearer.
“Closer,” said Erin.
Holtzmann sighed and resumed her place next to the couch.
“Closer,” Erin repeated.
By now Holtzmann’s chest was pressed against the couch cushions and it was taking every bit of her determination not to flee the room and Erin’s gaze entirely.
There wasn’t much closer to go. Holtzmann placed her chin on the edge of the couch and looked up at Erin. She sniffed.
“’M gonna get snot on your fancy furniture,” she said.
“I don’t care,” said Erin. Holtzmann believed her. Erin reached forward and gently swiped her thumb across Holtzmann’s cheeks under her eyes. Holtzmann’s breath caught in her throat.
She asked the question she was afraid to ask, finally. “You—you forgive me … for the buffalo?”
Erin shook her head and Holtzmann’s heart sank.
“No,” she said. “I don’t forgive you. You can’t forgive someone if you never blamed them in the first place.”
“But,” Holtzmann protested, “it was objectively my fault. That’s bad science, Gilbert.”
Erin shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said again. “I never blamed you, so don’t cry, and get up here with me.”
“I—” Holtzmann cut herself off as her brain registered the end of the statement. “What?”
“Come closer. Up. On the couch.”
Erin scooted back, proving there was enough room.
But this was too much, far too much. Holtzmann started shaking her head again, and she couldn’t stop, and she got to her feet and backed away toward the hallway.
“I’m sorry,” she said, realizing she hadn’t said it yet while Erin was awake. “I’ll be in your guest room—I’ll stay up—you should go to sleep, real sleep—yell if you need something. Anything.”
She made it out of the living room and down the hallway in a strange daze, aware of the starting point and destination but not the journey in between. She couldn’t remember if she had turned off the lamp behind her. She couldn’t remember if Erin had said anything else.
The worst part by far was that Holtzmann had learned another full sentence of Erin. She was kind, unreasonably, illogically so, when it came to her friends. If Holtzmann had been thinking more clearly, she might have attributed it to a combination of the sentimentality (vocabulary) and the saying goodnight (alphabet).
But what she focused on was that this realization was entirely an accident. When Erin was hurt, Holtzmann had stood by uselessly while Patty and Abby made things right. It had even been her fault, regardless of what the others said. And Holtzmann had not been able to help put Erin back together.
Erin, though—Erin wanted to put her back together, hours after being rammed in the back by a spectral buffalo.
Holtzmann felt very aware of two truths.
One, this was really not fair.
Two, she was really freaking in love with Erin. And she had just abandoned her hours after being injured. She took a deep breath and retraced her steps, poking her head around the corner from the hallway.
Erin was still on the couch. But this time, she had made herself small. Holtzmann realized she wasn’t the only one capable of protective ball formation.
“You don’t want to go to bed?” Holtzmann asked.
Erin shrugged, eyes downcast. “I’m fine,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Can I hang out with you?”
Holtzmann nodded mutely and wished she hadn’t left the room in the first place. She sat on the couch next to Erin, who didn’t say anything either.
Erin finally reached over and took Holtzmann’s hand in hers. Still facing forward, she lifted it until both their fingers brushed against the stitches above her brow. Holtzmann flinched.
“I just wanted to show you,” Erin said, “no real harm done.”
She lowered Holtzmann’s hand again but did not release it. Her fingers were long and smooth and cool. Holtzmann’s, by contrast, were shorter and calloused and warm.
“Why did you stay? Here, I mean?” Erin asked.
“Just … in case,” said Holtzmann. She was parroting Abby’s words, but they sounded right.
Erin leaned her head back against the couch. “Tell me a story or something,” she said. “Entertain me.”
“Yes. Or, I don’t know, sing to me. It’s quiet.” She didn’t say that it was uncomfortably quiet, but Holtzmann felt it. Usually their silences were peaceful, pleasant even.
“S-sing to you?”
Erin smiled encouragingly.
Now or never, thought Holtzmann. And Abby and Patty had seemed to think it was a good idea. She took a shuddering breath.
“Someday,” Holtzmann began, “when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold …”
Her voice sounded sort of weepy and hoarse from the crying, so it wasn’t an ideal serenade, but Erin sucked in a breath and sat up straight again, wincing from the abruptness of her movement.
“I love that song.”
Holtzmann fidgeted. “I figured,” she said. “I, um, heard you singing it yesterday—”
“I didn’t … know anyone could hear me,” Erin said, blushing.
Holtzmann struggled to think of a way to reassure her without admitting to mashing her face against the bathroom door for ten minutes.
“Only I can,” she settled on. “I have supersonic hearing.”
“You do not,” Erin scoffed. “That doesn’t even make sense. Supersonic means faster than the speed of sound.”
“I have radar, then. Like a bat. It’s selective. Only picks up on beautiful girls with beautiful singing voices.”
Erin was quiet for a long time. Finally she said, “Finish the song.”
Holtzmann started again, less hesitantly this time. “Someday …”
Softly, barely audibly at first, Erin joined in.
It was difficult not to notice how nicely their voices blended together.
Hey, thought Holtzmann. This is a duet. A duet entailed two separate things coming together to make a better thing. The syntax of Erin Gilbert kept finding her without her even trying.
Erin never let go of her hand.
Holtzmann and Erin stepped into the firehouse together the next morning, shortly before lunchtime. Patty and Abby jumped to their feet immediately.
“How are you?” they asked Erin in unison.
“I’m fine, guys, don’t worry,” said Erin.
“You didn’t have to come in today,” said Abby.
“I know,” said Erin, “but I have an exciting theory I’m working on with Holtz.”
She grabbed Holtzmann’s arm by the crook of her elbow and squeezed. Holtzmann grinned and shifted so that Erin’s hand slipped down and fell into hers. It was an accident, obviously. Abby raised an eyebrow at her and she ignored it.
“Hold up,” said Patty suspiciously. “Holtzy, what is that on your fingernails?”
Holtzmann glanced down at her fingers, left exposed by her gloves. “Um. Nail polish,” she said.
“Since when do you paint your nails?”
“Erin did it,” said Holtzmann. She lifted her arm—the one not intertwined with Erin’s—and wiggled her fingers. The paint alternated white and black, and each of the black nails had a smaller white design on top.
“She made little ghosties, see?” said Holtzmann proudly. “They glow in the dark. And they even have teensy empty eye sockets.”
Patty stared at her with pure disbelief and Abby looked like she was trying to decide whether to laugh or cry. Holtzmann didn’t see why it was such a big deal. It was only nail polish.
“And what is on your arm?” Patty continued, this time directed to Erin.
Erin lifted her injured arm, where JILLIAN HOLTZMANN was scribbled in big colorful Sharpie letters near her stitches.
“Holtz signed it,” she said. “Like a cast.”
“But it’s just an arm,” Abby pointed out.
“I didn’t want her to miss out,” Holtzmann said.
Patty and Abby exchanged a significant look, but Holtzmann wasn’t entirely certain what it signified.
“So,” said Erin, “want to go get the supplies you left outside yesterday? I’ll meet you on the roof for the tests?”
“You got it,” said Holtzmann.
Erin gave her an easy smile and a finger gun, slipped her hand free of Holtzmann’s, and headed upstairs. Holtzmann watched her go. Ugh, even the way she walked was objectively superior to all other human women. Erin wasn’t facing her anymore, so she could stare as long as she liked.
The other two Ghostbusters, however, were facing her.
“Baby,” said Patty, as if she had tried to squeeze every single opinion she had on the matter into the single word.
“Hmm?” asked Holtzmann, distracted. Erin’s ankles and below were still visible. Finally they disappeared from sight and she tore her eyes away.
“This is unbearable,” Abby said. “Look, you have both our blessings, Kevin’s too if he were here and knew what was going on—he should be here, by the way, where is he?—the point is, for all our mental sanity, please just make out with Erin already.”
Holtzmann floundered for a moment. “I am,” she said.
“If so, we have very different definitions of making out,” said Patty.
“No, I mean,” Holtzmann took a deep breath. “There is a process. I’m working on it. Her language isthebestlanguageever and I’m working on it, okay? I have to go get the parts and meet Erin on the roof so we can run crazy experiments together bye.”
She sauntered to the alley and shoved her scrounged scrap metal into a bag. As she did, the glow paint on one of her fingernails caught the sunlight. She’d never been a big fan of fingernail polish before, but then, she’d never had her nails painted by Erin before, either.
She loved the way Erin had drawn the ghosts, nothing like real ghosts, more like children in sheets on Halloween. Really, though, Erin’s eye socket technique was phenomenal.
Erin’s everything was phenomenal.
She wasn’t entirely sure if she could take Abby’s advice, though. She had learned Erin’s language, yes. But that was no reason to expect Erin to learn hers. Loving Erin Gilbert was already amazing. Being loved back … she might have to do without that.
Holtzmann shouldered her bag and headed up to the roof.
Chapter 5: Fluency
fluency = the ability to speak a language easily and very well
Look at that! I finished a story!
Thank you MUCHLY to all of you. You've been amazing. I hope you like the last installment.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It had been a week since the Buffalo Escape-ade, as Holtzmann had begun to refer to it. That was long enough for Erin’s stitches to be removed. Long enough for Holtzmann to perfect the prototype and implement Erin’s theory in the actual containment units. Long enough for her to bring the grand total of Erin blushes (since she started counting, at least) to thirteen.
Apparently not long enough for her to lady up, as Patty put it, and tell Erin how she felt.
Even so, she really thought she was getting the hang of speaking Erin’s language.
She continued to make her coffee in the mornings, and often she set out the items on her desk before Erin arrived. They were incredibly in synch during busts, thanks to how attuned Holtzmann was to every single Erin sound that existed. And Erin had started coming in a little earlier and staying a little later, which Holtzmann cautiously hoped was because of her.
Today was Firehouse Laundry Day, or the day Holtzmann, Abby, and Patty washed their coveralls and Erin washed her three coveralls. Laundry day had become synonymous with Board Game Day, because sitting around a table trying to good-naturedly destroy each other was an excellent way to pass the time while waiting for the laundry machine to run.
“Kamchatka from Alaska,” said Patty, who had proven to be a very strategic—unsettlingly strategic—Risk player.
Erin moaned. “Not Kamchatka. I need my bonus Asia armies next turn.”
Holtzmann surveyed the board. Abby was struggling mightily in Europe; Erin had managed to pin down all of Asia, though by the looks of it not for long; and Patty had firm control of North and South America and most of Africa. Holtzmann herself had built a small but heavily populated stronghold in Australia.
Kevin wasn’t playing, because Risk was a bit beyond him, but they had placed some pieces in the Arctic ocean in his honor.
“You shouldn’t have spread yourself so thin in Yakutsk and Siberia, then,” said Patty sagely. “Kamchatka from Alaska,” she repeated.
They rolled the dice. Patty conquered. And then she proceeded to obliterate Erin in Japan, Mongolia, China, and Siam, which connected to Holtzmann’s heavily militarized Indonesia. She eyed Holtzmann warily.
“I know you haven’t done anything but sit in Australia this entire game, but I still don’t trust you,” she said.
Holtzmann bared her teeth at her, half grin, half something a wildcat would do.
“You’re a wise woman, Pattycakes,” she said.
“… Yeah, I’m not taking on Holtzy. I’m done. Your turn, Yates.”
Abby squabbled successfully with Patty over Egypt and unsuccessfully with Erin over the Middle East. Then Erin took her turn, which consisted mostly of her bemoaning the loss of five of her territories. She seemed to have been especially attached, emotionally even, to Kamchatka.
When she finally passed the dice to Holtzmann, she said, “Avenge me.”
Holtzmann’s eyes lit up. “Okay,” she said.
Erin blinked. “Wait, really?” Holtzmann understood why she was surprised. Like Patty had said, she hadn’t budged from Australia the entire game. She was content there.
“’Course,” she said. “Anything for you.”
Holtzmann rubbed her palms together, chuckled darkly, and bolstered her troops. Then she picked up the dice and shook them in her hands, looking at Patty over the rims of her glasses.
“Indonesia to Siam, Patty. Lez go.”
Patty reluctantly picked up her own dice. “For the record, I regret ever taking over Siam,” she said.
“For the record, I regret ever playing this game with the lot of you,” said Abby grumpily.
Holtzmann stuck her fist in front of Erin’s face.
“Blow on my dice for good luck,” she said.
Erin did, albeit tentatively. Holtzmann wasn’t sure she believed in power of the superstition, but she definitely believed in the power of Erin’s warm breath against her skin.
She cleared her throat and tried to remember how to breathe herself, and then she set herself to avenging.
Patty stared at the board in shock.
“Holtzmann,” she said.
Holtzmann grinned. “Full name,” she said. “Wuh-woh, am I in trouble?”
“You bet your strange little ass you are. You steamrolled through twenty-two territories in one turn. That’s like, half the board. You are on every single continent in this game. It’s just not natural. How. Even.”
“I am an avenger,” Holtzmann said, raising her fists in the air triumphantly.
“You’ve spread yourself too thin,” commented Abby, who was leaning her head on her hand sadly. Holtzmann may have slightly accidentally conquered all of her territories and removed her from the game. “None of those twenty-two are defendable.”
Holtzmann couldn’t find it in herself to care, not when Erin was staring at her like she was her personal hero.
“Why did you even come after me?” Abby continued. “I didn’t hurt Erin!”
“You tried to take the Middle East from her,” Holtzmann argued.
Erin’s affectionate gaze intensified.
“Only you would use fake international relations as a seduction technique,” said Abby with a groan.
Holtzmann stiffened and quickly averted her eyes from Erin’s. Not that it was a secret exactly, but Abby and Patty usually weren’t so direct when Erin was around.
Abby noticed her reaction and lifted her head from her hand. “Sorry, Holtz, I just meant—I was just teasing.”
“I’m going to get a drink,” Holtzmann said abruptly. “Anyone want anything?” But she was halfway to the kitchen before any of them could answer.
Erin followed her.
“I want a root beer,” she said, leaning on the counter.
“Coming up,” said Holtzmann, trying not to sound strangled.
“Um, so I noticed something,” said Erin.
That I should really work on my seduction techniques? wondered Holtzmann. “What’s that?” she said out loud.
“You pronounce Quebec with a k sound.”
Well, that was unexpected. Holtzmann paused with the refrigerator door open.
“I’ve always said it qu, like in quack.”
Holtzmann realized what was going on then, and her mouth relaxed into a smile. She grabbed two root beers and turned back to face Erin, kicking the fridge door shut with her foot.
“Fascinating,” she said. “I pronounce it with the hard k because that’s how you say it in French.”
“Wait, do you speak French?”
“Of course. How else would I have known about pom-pom girl?”
“I thought you were kidding,” said Erin, taking her root bear and popping the tab.
“My dear Dr. Gilbert,” said Holtzmann, “I never kid about cheerleaders.”
Erin leaned further over the counter. “Say something else in French,” she said. There was something different about her voice now, something more eager.
Holtzmann considered. “Do you know any French?”
“Je lutterais contre le monde entier pour te faire sourire.”
Erin beamed. “It’s pretty. What’s it mean?”
“It means … my root beer tastes flat.”
Erin wrinkled her nose. “I don’t believe you. I didn’t hear anything about root beer in there,” she said.
“Well, you wouldn’t. I was speaking in French,” said Holtzmann.
Erin looked like she couldn’t decide whether to believe her or not, but she was still smiling.
I would fight the whole world to make you smile, Holtzmann thought.
The next day, Holtzmann wasn’t the first one at headquarters.
Admittedly, she was often first because she was last, and simply never went home. But when she did leave for the night, thoughts of her inventions brought her back early in the morning anyway.
Today, even though it was not yet 7 a.m. when she arrived at the firehouse, Erin was already there.
She found her in the lab, sitting primly at her desk as if it were normal for her to come two-and-a-half hours early. There was a cup on one of Holtzmann’s tables she didn’t remember leaving there. Holtzmann approached it curiously. It looked like a take-out coffee cup, but whatever liquid was inside was masked by a generous layer of whipped cream and a powdery crumble that might have previously been a graham cracker.
Holtzmann looked at Erin and pointed at the cup questioningly.
“It’s s’mores flavor,” Erin explained. “Double shot of coffee and basically every syrup add-in they had. It has the highest sugar content of any drink on the café’s menu. I checked.”
Holtzmann stared at her in astonishment. She grabbed the cup and took a sip. It tasted like liquid heaven, and she said so.
Then she snapped her fingers. “I just remembered, I had some equations yesterday on these blueprints I couldn’t figure out, and I was wondering—”
“I already corrected them,” said Erin.
“You did?” Holtzmann gaped at her and picked up the papers. Sure enough, Erin’s neat handwriting was inserted here and there, fixing the math.
“Thanks,” Holtzmann added. She wanted to say something better or at least cleverer, but her brain failed to supply anything else. “I’ll, um, be right back, I’m going to go grab a couple screwdrivers I left on the roof—”
“They’re under your desk,” Erin said. “In that box.” She pointed. “Also did you know you have fourteen different screwdrivers? I feel like that’s excessive.”
“I …” Holtzmann began, overwhelmed. “What?”
“I was organizing them because you’re always missing whichever one you’re looking for, and there’s fourteen.”
Holtzmann felt like there was a massive joke she was missing out on. “There’s actually fifteen,” she said dazedly, “but I haven’t seen Paulette in weeks.” She looked at the box Erin had indicated. The screwdrivers were organized by type and then sub-organized by size. It was organization-ception, and she knew the moment she touched the box it would never be this neat again.
An hour later, she was deep into trying to minimize the cryogenic chambers for a lighter proton pack when something warm and soft settled around her shoulders.
Erin stood next to her, lifting her hands from the blanket.
“Sorry to distract you,” she said. “But you looked cold. You were shivering.”
Holtzmann blinked. “The … liquid nitrogen …” she mumbled.
“Right,” said Erin. “Oh, and when you’re done with that, your new orange wires are coiled on the corner table. I figured you’d be stripping them today.”
“I … how did you know that?”
“It’s Thursday. You usually strip wires at some point on Thursdays. Beats me why you always have wire to strip, but it’s Thursday, so.”
Holtzmann hadn’t realized she was that habitual.
As Erin headed back to her own work, Holtzmann adjusted the blanket a little tighter around her. It was blue and smelled slightly coconutty. It had to be Erin’s blanket.
With all these strange events of the morning, and their conversation the night before about Quebec, Holtzmann almost wondered … was Erin trying to …?
No, surely not.
It was almost dinnertime, and Erin was packing up her things to leave. They had a public appearance next week at some function of the mayor’s—Holtzmann was hoping that if she never learned what exactly it was, she couldn’t be expected to show up dressed properly—and Erin had spent the afternoon working on a brief presentation she and Abby were going to give of the revised version of their book.
“I’m headed home,” Erin announced.
Holtzmann smiled at her but didn’t entirely look up—the chemicals in front of her were highly flammable and possible explosive in combination—and she saluted with her free hand.
“Uh, before I go,” said Erin. “Look what I bought for a snack on the subway ride home.”
Holtzmann hummed at her and held up one finger while she tried to stabilize her experiment. Then she bobbed up her head.
Erin held a full-size tube of Pringles and shook it back and forth a little. She grinned. Holtzmann raised an eyebrow.
“I thought I should give them a try, you know, because you’re such a big fan, and you generally have good taste.”
That was an odd thing to say. Erin didn’t have similar taste to her at all. She liked healthy food and sensible clothing and a general sense of orderliness and coffee that still tasted like coffee.
Erin popped off the lid and peeled back the foil covering. She paused.
“The thing is,” she said, “I wouldn’t want my first experience to be bad. What if this is a stale package?”
Holtzmann’s lips had drifted apart a bit in confusion. “You’ll just have to risk it, I guess?” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Erin. “I want to be sure these are top-quality Pringles before I dig in. Who knows how long they’ve been at the store?”
“Well, if you read the expiration date and subtract—” Holtzmann started.
Erin actually shushed her.
“Not foolproof enough,” she said. “I think the best solution would be for someone else with more Pringle experience to try them first, just to make sure.”
“I suppose …” said Holtzmann, and then she froze. Wait a minute.
Erin stepped closer. “As a Pringle expert, would you eat the first chip, please?” She held out the tube toward Holtzmann.
Holtzmann was in shock. She forgot all about her experiment and accidentally knocked the beaker off her table. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the crash as the glass shattered on the floor.
Erin looked startled but seemed to decide to ignore it, still holding out the tube expectantly.
Holtzmann’s mouth felt dry. She took the top chip, put it wholly into her mouth, crunched, and swallowed.
“All good,” she said in a choked monotone. “I give it the Holtzmann seal of freshness.”
“Excellent!” Erin said cheerily. “Thanks so much. See you tomorrow! Also, there’s a fire on the floor.”
With that, she practically skipped out of the room.
Holtzmann’s left foot felt unusually warm, where the beaker had fallen, but she let the flames burn and licked some residual salt off her lips. There was a more distracting fire at the moment. An internal fire.
What had just happened?
It took about five minutes for Holtzmann to decide that the universe could not possibly give her more signs. She (literally) dropped what she was working on, grabbed her jacket, and went after Erin.
Holtzmann knocked a repetitive pattern on Erin’s door. The doorwoman downstairs had waved her in immediately, recognizing her, but with every step up the stairs to Erin’s apartment Holtzmann had felt her resolve weaken.
She gritted her teeth and knocked again.
“It’s me,” said Holtzmann. And then, perhaps unnecessarily, “Holtzmann.”
She heard a chain sliding out of its groove and then the door swung open. Erin looked surprised to see her, but not unpleasantly surprised. She also looked … cozy. She was wearing pajama pants printed with little stars and a hooded sweatshirt, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her feet were in those thick fluffy things that weren’t really slippers or socks, but were also sort of both.
Holtzmann really liked cozy Erin.
Erin cleared her throat. “You’re the one who knocked on my door,” she reminded her.
“Right,” said Holtzmann. “Yes. I did. I considered picking the lock again but I thought that might be rude since you’re conscious this time.”
“I—uh, what? Wait. This time?”
“Never mind. Can I come in?”
Erin nodded and stepped aside.
Holtzmann took in the immaculate apartment, entirely unchanged from the last time she had been inside, and stood uncomfortably in the space separating Erin’s living room from her kitchen. She shifted her weight between her feet.
“Are you all right?” Erin asked, when Holtzmann still said nothing.
“Yes,” she almost-yelled in her nervousness. Erin jumped. Holtzmann tugged on her necklace and repeated herself, less loudly, “Yes.” She took a breath. “I have to tell you something. I’m not sure what you think or will think about it but I need to tell you so you know and it’s okay if you want to pretend I never said it afterwards.”
Now Erin looked a bit alarmed, but she gestured at the couch and they sat down in the same positions that they had occupied the night after the hospital. Holtzmann stayed facing forward, because she would never be able to get the words out if she had to look at Erin while she spoke them.
“People are very confusing and it can be easier to understand them metaphorically or not at all,” she began. “But I am trying to learn about you anyway because you are important. And being around you makes me happy and I love you, and I am in love with you, and if you are a language then you are the most beautiful language I have ever heard and I want to hear it all the time.”
Holtzmann finished and fought the urge to squeeze her eyes shut or leave the room.
“Really?” Erin breathed.
It wasn’t the ideal response maybe, but it wasn’t negative, so that was something. Holtzmann glanced at her.
“I kept oscillating back and forth about whether to tell you,” she said, “because I’m not, you know, overly gifted in the communication department—”
“No, Holtz,” said Erin, scooting closer, and then her hand was on Holtzmann’s face, and boy was that distracting, “your language is indescribable. It suits you perfectly. That’s why I tried to use it to … show you my own feelings.”
Holtzmann’s brain nearly short-circuited.
“You mean, the … the everything and the … Pringle …”
Erin nodded. “Don’t oscillate,” she said, and she was so close that Holtzmann could see all the different beautiful flecks of color in her eyes. “Osculate instead.”
Holtzmann gaped at her. “Did you just use an obscure geometric word to say we should kiss?”
“I mean, only if you want to—” Erin started quickly, but Holtzmann cut her off mid-sentence. As magical as Erin’s hand on her face had felt, her hand had nothing on her lips.
Erin hummed contentedly. Holtzmann gripped her forearms, light but insistent, because although she had never been this close to Erin before, it was still not close enough. Erin came willingly, without once breaking the kiss. Suddenly she was essentially straddling Holtzmann’s lap. Holtzmann’s hands slipped around her back and slightly under her hoodie, at which point she discovered Erin wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath it. That was useful information.
Holtzmann felt like someone had released a butterfly house inside her stomach, except all the butterflies were highly caffeinated and setting off small explosives.
Then Erin tangled her fingers in Holtzmann’s hair, using her grip to tug Holtzmann’s head backwards, and she pressed her lips to her neck. Holtzmann actually squeaked. When Erin pulled back again, her cheeks were very pink and her eyes very unfocused.
“You stopped,” Holtzmann protested.
“Forgot to tell you something important,” Erin said. “I love you back.”
Holtzmann’s mouth split into a wide grin, and Erin mirrored the expression.
“For real?” Holtzmann asked.
Holtzmann touched Erin’s face, because that was a thing she could do now, she could touch Erin, and she smoothed her hair and traced a finger over her lips. Erin stayed very still.
Holtzmann felt infinitely grateful. Grateful to the universe for creating Erin. Grateful to Abby and Patty for harassing her. Grateful to ghosts. Grateful to the languages of the world, and to the study of linguistics, and to geometry terms with double meanings, and to homemade waffle batter, and to boom boxes, and to first Pringles, and to herself for working up the nerve to follow Erin home, and most of all to Erin herself.
Maybe, she realized then, Erin’s original response wasn’t out-of-place after all. Maybe it made perfect sense.
“Thank you,” said Holtzmann, and she had never meant the words more.
“Gracias,” Erin said back, punctuating it with another kiss, and Holtzmann laughed. A word of Spanish Erin actually knew.
“Merci,” Holtzmann mumbled against Erin’s lips. “Tak … Solpayki … Спасибо.”
She ran out of translations after that, but that was okay. None of those languages were anything compared to Erin’s. And Erin started kissing her more slowly and deeply, stirring up the butterfly house all over again, and Holtzmann realized that she still had a lot left to learn.
She couldn’t wait.