putting her face between the mobile and Trace’s eyes, pushing herself into his line of sight to get his attention

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DISTANCED

2 TRACE

Two college-age individuals scrolling through Facebook flank Trace on both sides. Usually, he’d be doing the same, but today it’s nonfiction. He’s scrolling through a book titled “Why you love music” by John Powell on his mobile. The crowded subway smells of urine today, but no one seems to care, immersed, staring at their small screens. 

At the next stop, a woman who seems to be minutes from labor boards the train with her 5-year toddler. They are holding hands. No one near them offers her a seat, so Trace stands and motions her over with his open hands. She furrows her brows and hesitates, to which Traces nods, smiles, and assures her he means to give up the seat for her by mouthing “yes,” and pointing at it. The bubbly, toddling babe looks toward him, smiling with dimply rosy cheeks. Mother and child make their way and take the seat, and Trace moves closer to the car door. 

Trace hops off the train at the next stop onto the crowded gray concrete terminal building. It’s buzzing with activity, provoking him to raise his awareness level. He brushes through the crowd with the occasional “I’m sorry” as he pushes against other commuters and carves a path through the traffic to the station’s exit.

He emerges onto a bustling street peaking with activity. Taxis blare their horns, bike couriers speed past him. He squares his shoulders and braves the two-block walk to the building housing his lab. Once inside, the tapping of high heels hammers the tile behind him as he makes his way to the lobby stairwell. A petite, curvy woman with two cups of coffee in hand rushes to walk along with him. 

“Morning, Trace!” Vanessa says with a sing-song voice. Stunning in a tight black pencil skirt, fitted blouse, and ruby-colored lip gloss. 

“Hey. Good morning” answers Trace in a tone that falls flat and emotionless. 

“Here, I got you a latte. Well, the barista messed mine up, and I got to keep both. It’s hazelnut, and you’re the only person I know that likes hazelnut.” She shrugs and hands him the cup, steam billowing from the small hole in the lid. 

“Wow, that’s so nice. Thank you.” The corner of his mouth lifts into a subtle grin. They walk down the steps together. Into the basement, commonly referred to as “The Mental Ward or The Ward for short.” It’s brightly lit, but only by artificial light, lacking color, and making it feel sterile and intimidating like an insane asylum. 

Vanessa slaps a manilla folder across his chest and winks at him. “Finished these up last night. You thought I wouldn’t get them done.”

“Huh?” Trace asks as he slides the folder under his arm. 

“You said if I went out to the bar last night, I wouldn’t have time to finish the reports. Well, I did. You would have had time to finish yours too if you had come with us.” Vanessa’s shoes click-clacked ahead of him, and with her free hand, reaches and opens the door before he can get it. 

“Thanks, you didn’t have to do that.” He grins as he passes through the door first and into the lab. 

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” she giggles. 

Trace takes perch on a lab stool and immediately opens his app to look over Jake Blake’s comment again. He scrutinizes the word choice, punctuation, and single emoji. Why only one? There are so many choices. Did it mean anything? Scrolling through the other comments, he searches for further replies and exchanges. There are only two others and left by fellow musicians. There isn’t a discernible pattern.

By the time Trace looks up, an hour has passed, and he hasn’t accomplished a thing. Feeling annoyed, he slides the phone across the table and fumbles with the folder charming Vanessa handed him nearly an hour ago. The rows and columns of cells blur together, and his chest tightens. His leg bounces, and his foot taps rapidly on the floor, a monotonous squeak emanating from the casters rolling back and forth.   

“Calm down. It’s only a progress report. The committee isn’t asking us to present a complete set of findings yet,” says Vanessa, rolling her chair to his side of the table and sitting beside him. His leg settles, and he eyes the papers once again, looking deeper into the data. Once his nerves pacify, he organizes their findings for management’s review, writing descriptions and adding flowcharts to complete the narration. Vanessa watches over his shoulder, taking in little quirks to his method. Traces’ attention to values and significance is impeccable. He has a discerning eye for worthy, informative, and well-written sentences. 

“Done,” declares Jake, “and just in time,” as they watch directors pour into the lab for the progress report. 

The two finish their elocution with the management team, giving them gleaming praise for their performance. Trace leans back in his chair as soon as his superiors clear the doorway out of the lab. Then, he slips his hand into his stiff white lab coat and pulls out his phone. Without so much as a thought, he finds his way to Jake’s profile again. He repeatedly watches the brief clip of his performance. The way he smiles and interacts with the audience draws him in. 

“So, are you joining me tonight? We can celebrate today’s successful milestone.” Vanessa cranes her neck, putting her face between the mobile and Trace’s eyes, pushing herself into his line of sight to get his attention. 

“What is it?” He barely lifts his eyes from his screen. 

“Come have drinks with me. You need to get out some. I need to get out, so let’s get out together. We can shop talk. Just come along.” 

“Oh, um. Next time. I just have some stuff. You know…” 

“Yep. Stuff. I know.” Vanessa’s smile fades, and she pulls on her coat with an aggressive jerk. Trace goes back to scrolling and critiquing his own comment from hours ago. He sets up notifications for Jake’s posts in hopes he might leave another comment. If he replies again, it will be more than a chance. It will mean he wants the interaction as much as Trace does. 

WE&P by EZorrilla

Original story by Breanna Leslie

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