Butterscotch and Theories


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Scene Title Butterscotch and Theories
Synopsis Nicole finds herself on the opposite end of a different government agency's questions.
Date September 7, 2020

Fort Jay

The 9 a.m. appointment in her calendar simply reads Agent Bright with no alphabet soup following, just the note as to what it’s about: re July crash.

Any searches for Agent Bright among known SESA contacts don’t yield anything too helpful. There’s one or two that might possibly fit the bill — one at the CIA, another with the FBI. However, the tall man with a shock of white hair seems unlikely to be either Vera or Hildebrand.

Bright smiles when he sees her, exuding a kindly grandfather air, with eyes that crinkle at the corners thanks to the prominent crows’ feet, or the plaid bow tie that picks up the blue in those eyes.

“Assistant Director Miller, I presume?” he says, as he steps into the office, giving a grateful nod to the intern who escorted him to her door.

Nicole had gotten to her feet after verbalizing that she was prepared to receive her appointment, so she’s just rounded her desk by the time the man enters her office. “Thank you, Gene. If anyone needs me for anything, please refer them to Ayers?” She smiles to the retreating blonde while she turns the rod hanging from her window looking out to the bullpen, shutting the blinds while Agent Trainee Stevenson closes her door.

If this is about the July crash, she doesn’t want anyone gauging what’s going on. Nicole turns away from the now concealed glass and offers her hand out to the older man, her smile remaining and pleasant. “You must be Agent Bright. Please, go ahead and call me Nicole.” Her gaze darts lower momentarily, her smile widening. “Nice tie.

He smiles at the retreating intern, then moves into the office, taking the offered hand in his own — it’s dry and a little on the warm side, his shake firm. “Nicole. If we’re going by first names, you may call me Davis, if you like.”

A chuckle follows as he pats the tie. “I like a bit of color, you know. I feel it makes me seem a bit less like the typical government goon or spook or whatever negative term a person might wish to call those such as ourselves.” He nods to a chair. “May I?”

Whether he may or may not, he does, settling his lanky form into the seat and pulling out a notepad and pencil. “A bit old school,” he concedes, “but I find taking notes by hand helps me retain them better. They’ve done studies, you know.”

Bright fixes his eyes on her. “I’m sure your people are also working on this. I’m here more to check in on you and see how you are holding up, take a bit of an assessment. How you feel, anything you’ve noticed, anything out of the norm, aside from the obvious.”

“Davis.” Blue eyes drift toward the ceiling, head canting to one side as she pulls a face that implies embarrassment. “I once wore a green dress to a very important black tie event.” She’s not actually embarrassed by that. Not anymore, anyway. “So I definitely get you about the color thing.” Nicole chuckles quietly. “Far less boring. More approachable.” She gestures to the chair in turn with a nod. “Please.”

Nicole comes around her desk again to sit in her chair, swiveling her monitor off to one side after tapping the button on its face to turn it off. It’s demonstrative that she wants not distractions for this meeting. “Oh, I’m well acquainted with those studies.” She gestures to the pad of pale blue lined paper alongside her keyboard, a fountain pen laying across its surface, waiting for use. They already have so much in common.

Her brows lift when he says her people. “And who are your people, Davis?” Her smile doesn’t falter. “To whom do I owe my gratitude for this touching concern?”

“Approachable. That’s a great word for it,” Davis says with a broad smile, reaching into his blazer pocket and coming up with two butterscotch disks. He holds one up and slides it across the table to her. “I need to keep my blood sugar up or I swoon like a woman in a Victorian novel,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper, untwisting the golden-hued cellophane before popping the yellow candy in his mouth.

“Green would be a sight for sore eyes among all the penguin suits and black gowns, in my book,” he adds, leaning back and jotting down some words in a jaunty, nearly illegible script, due to the miniscule size of the letters. “Oh, you know. The US government. A department that’s been tasked with looking into this — not that we expect SESA to stop. We might even,” he lowers his voice, “collaborate at some point. I mean, if I had my way, we would. Two heads are better than one.”

He clicks the button on the end of his pen a few times as he speaks. “Have you experienced anything strange since you’ve returned to New York that you can’t account for, physically, mentally, emotionally?”

Reaching across the desk, Nicole slides the candy the rest of the way toward herself with two fingers. Amused, but tinged with something that looks distinctly like sadness, if he happens to watch her eyes instead of the curve of her mouth. But the breath of laughter that escapes her is genuine when he commends her for breaking society rules.

If she was about to snap something about how they’re both US government and she’d like the courtesy of at least an acronym — and, yes, she was about to — the desire is mitigated by his admission that he’d rather collaborate. “I’d like that. I happen to agree with you. Sharing resources and knowledge can only help us get to the bottom of this.”

Nicole leans back in her chair finally, adopting a casual posture while she lowers her eyes to the candy she was offered, plucking it up off the desk and taking her time splitting the wrapping open so she can take the disk out. She holds it up between her thumb and forefinger. “You know, back in June, I would have practically cried to get one of these. I was craving — craving — butterscotch. I had a bottle of the stuff and a gallon tub of ice cream, and I just had butterscotch sundaes every single night after dinner.” She pops the candy into her mouth.

Which is to say, “I’m doing terribly, thank you for asking.” Well. That explains the earlier look of sadness at least. Nicole pushes the sweet to one side with her tongue, letting it settle between her cheek and her molars. “Honestly? I’m in so much grief that I couldn’t tell you if something out of the ordinary was wrong with me.” There’s no traces of her earlier smile. She sees little point in hiding behind a mask here. She said she believed in the necessity of collaboration, so she’s taking the first step on that path in good faith.

“Oh, dear.” His heavy brows draw together and he reaches for his pocket square, setting it on the desk in case of tears. Never mind she probably has a Kleenex box nearby of her very own.

“I said they should send one of the girls with the more sensitive cases, you know, but they told me I should come anyway. I’m sorry they didn’t send someone better equipped to handle these things,” Davis murmurs, pulling out two more butterscotch disks to set on the table beside the handkerchief.

“Have you had any instances of deja vu, maybe, or any days where you’ve lost time — couldn’t account for an hour, maybe more? Things like that. I know it’s hard to separate what’s abnormal from what’s expected in your situation. It’s not a situation we’ve ever encountered, as far as I know,” he says, clicking his pen’s button a few more times, then writing something down that she can’t read.

“I’ve gotten my crying out of the way,” Nicole promises. She leaves the pocket square, but takes the candies. She’ll have them later, and she’ll feel a little bit better for it. Maybe. The candy in her mouth clicks audibly against her teeth as she nudges it over the other side now.

“I… My therapist says I’m probably dissociating.” That’s not an easy thing for Nicole to admit. “This is all staying between us, right? You’re not… I need this job,” she begs quietly. “I need this work. I swear I’m fit for it.”

His eyes widen and he glances down at his notes, then her. “I promise you your answers will not be turned in to anyone in SESA, and the information we take will only be used to help us understand what happened. Anything shared with other agencies would be in an aggregate form. You know, something like ‘five of sixteen survivors stated that they had trouble sleeping after the event’ or ‘nine of sixteen survivors attested to needing to sneeze more often after the event.’ That sort of thing.”

Leaving pen and notepad set down on the desk, Bright steeples his fingers as he studies her across the desk’s distance. “I do commend you for going to therapy after such a traumatizing occurrence. Can you tell me what this disassociation is like, specifically, for you? For the record, I am not a therapist, so I can’t offer more than a willing ear to listen, but it might help us, you know, make some connections. See any patterns that aren’t simply typical responses when compared to, say, more explainable aircraft accidents.”

Needing to sneeze more often draws an involuntary and breathy chuckle from Nicole, speaking to her nerves about her honesty. The notion is just absurd enough to deescalate her mounting tension. There’s two more little bubbles of laughter before she presses the back of her hand to her mouth like that might be what she needs in order to force it back down.

By the time her hand lowers again, her jaw is set tight and she nods twice. “I understand.” That he’s not able to offer advice. She doesn’t necessarily want it anyway. “If it’ll help… The other day, I was standing at the stove. I put water on for tea. Next thing I know, I’m sitting on the couch and my daughter’s tugging on my sleeve, telling me the kettle’s been whistling for ten minutes.” Nicole had been looking away for the duration of her little fit and her story, but now she looks up again. “I guess I’m lucky I haven’t burned my house down. It’s just little things like that, you know? Finding myself at the end of the alley at the trash bin, but I don’t remember grabbing the kitchen trash.”

Nicole shakes her head. “I mean, it’s there. It all adds up and makes perfect sense. It’s just that… I do things and I don’t remember the time between starting the task and… whenever I happen to realize I’ve done anything at all.” She makes a frustrated little sound in the back of her throat. This is an admission of something she doesn’t have control of. And if there’s a file on her somewhere that Agent Bright has read, he’ll know that Mrs. Miller thrives on control. “But it’s never anything inexplicable. Just stuff at home, mostly. I don’t come to on the other side of town or anything. It’s fine when I’m here. I’m engaged. I stay busy.” For the most part.

The man nods, jotting down some notes, then smiling at her. “The other day I drove all the way home and didn’t remember even starting the car,” he says, in a low voice. “But I think that’s me getting senile.”

He laughs, a loud, hearty thing, before he clicks his pen button. “Probably just stress and nothing to worry about,” Bright says with a slow nod, even though he’s already told her he’s not at all credentialed to help.
“Thank you for sharing that with me, Nicole. Would you say you’ve had any physical sensations — tingling fingers, ringing in your ears, smelling strange smells that don’t seem to have a source, things like that, you know — that you might not think to mention to a medical doctor as a problem? Again, anything you think of can be useful, no matter how insignificant it might seem.

Nicole laughs in spite of herself. “Surely you’re not old enough for senility, Davis.” He’s good at breaking the tension. She’s already appreciating that about him.

That he doesn’t pass judgements (openly) and provides a kind of reassurance is helpful to keeping from sinking into her constant despair. “Besides a phantom kick or two?” Nicole’s head turns back and forth to signify the negative. “No. Not that I’ve noticed.” She might drink too much to notice anything, too. But she’ll keep that much to herself. One arm rests across the flat of her midsection unconsciously, cradling her once-pregnant belly and possibly waiting to feel something. A habitual motion, rather than intentional one.

The pen scratches against the pad of paper and Davis nods, slowly. “Good, good,” he murmurs, but realizes that might not be the best response to phantom kicks and presses his mouth into a flat line. He looks up, blue eyes solemn behind their dark spectacles.

“I mean, it’s good that you aren’t experiencing other strange phenomena, not, you know. The kicks.” He sighs again, consulting his notes for a long moment.

“So you’re well and adjusted so long as your mind is occupied, it sounds like, and experiencing some dissociative moments when you aren’t kept busy, you would say. Would you say in those more quiet moments, you’re thinking about the incident or its impact on your life when you lose track of time, or are you sort of spaced out before you lose track of time?”

Nicole nods her understanding. “I get it. You’re okay.” Maybe they should have sent a different agent to talk to her. But she’s not about to break down sobbing by any means. She’s had time to come to terms with the reality of her situation. In this way, he’s the fortunate one. Someone else may have lost their temper by now.

His question is one she pauses to think about before she answers. It’s evident in the way her brow knits and her eyes narrow, though she ensures her scrutiny is angled away from him, lest he take it as some kind of suspicion. An audible breath is drawn in, signalling that she means to speak again. “I’m not sure there’s a time when I’m not thinking about it. About what happened to me.”

Ruefully, she shifts her attention back to Bright. “I’ve asked my daughter so many times what she remembers about the night my husband and I were taken. Like, did someone break in? Did she hear anything? Did she see anything?” The answer to those questions must be no, judging from the fact she doesn’t offer any details about what was said. “There weren’t enough hours between when we went to bed and when we were found in that crash. There’s just no way.”

Frowning, she realizes she’s gotten off the track a bit. “Yes, I think about it all the time. Especially when I lose track of where I am and what I’m doing. If I’m not trying to puzzle out how, I’m thinking about what was stolen from me. The question I keep coming back to, though, is why?” Nicole leans forward, plaintive. “Tell me your people have some theories. Because I have a few, and I don’t like any of them or what they imply.”

His expression solemn, brows drawn together so it furrows his brow, Bright nods as she speaks, content to let her talk out how she feels, her thoughts and musings rather than interrupt. His pen button clicks once or twice, and the nib scratches against the paper to jot down words now and then.

The question at the end draws a heavy sigh from him, and he shakes his head slowly. “While I am sure there are theories, I cannot say I’ve been briefed on any that can be shared. For now, I hope it will suffice to say that it’s being worked on, both by my office and yours. Probably a dozen other agencies as well, including some in the great white north.”

His expression grows a little more somber. “I can’t promise anything, of course. My job is just to see how you’re doing, collect the data, make sure nothing’s worse than it was in July. Aside from the grief,” he winces, because it’s a very large thing to set aside, “would you say most things have improved since then?”

Nothing they can share. Of course. Nicole nods quickly at that. Yeah, okay, fine. She doesn’t like it, but she of all people can understand and appreciate the button-lipped handling. If she were in his place, she’d be giving him the same responses.

Her interest shifts to the pen and the paper for a moment. There’s something about watching him draw and shape the letters that catches her eye. There’s nothing unusual about taking notes the way he does, it’s just… a moving target to focus on. Maybe it’s an ASMR thing, the scratch of implement over surface.

The question brings her focus back again and she laughs at the absurdity of it. “Improved? No. Nothing’s improved. But I hardly had a scratch on me. I… can’t explain that either. Everyone else was fu— completely battered.” Some worse than others. “But it’s like someone bubble wrapped me. I had a couple of bruises, but…” Nicole shrugs. “That’s it. There wasn’t much physically to improve. It’s like somebody made me brand new and just took me out of my packaging. Like a new Barbie doll or something.”

What kind of Barbie would she be, anyway?

“Do you have any theories, Davis?” Nicole delivers the query as though she were asking what his favorite flavor of ice cream might be. “Unofficially, of course. I understand how these sorts of investigations work. But this has got to be one hell of a complex case, even for your agency. Surely you’ve got some notions of your own.”

“SESA Agent Barbie,” muses Bright, smiling mildly, but then nodding slowly at her words. “I was once in a train that derailed. Nothing strange, mundane accident, of course. But it can be like that — one person walking away with not a scratch while the person sitting next to them taken away in a stretcher, or worse. It’s a strange feeling.”

He pulls off his glasses, reaching for the pocket square to clean the lenses. “I had one scrape, across here,” he says, weathered fingers of one hand sliding along the far side of the opposite wrist. Walked around in a fog for the rest of the day. Felt a lot of guilt for not being worse off, you know? It’s not like I derailed the train, of course.”

Pushing his glasses back on, he folds his notepad and slides the pen within the spiral for safekeeping. “Nothing useful, I’m afraid. I’m not the one they pay to figure out the things, just a data collector.” He tips his head to the side. “Does your daughter treat you any differently now?”

“That must’ve been terrible,” Nicole commiserates after a breath of laughter for SESA Agent Barbie. Beats Malibu. Even if she might like the Ferrari. She rubs her own wrist absently, semi-conscious of the fact she’s mirroring him.

The motion stops when he asks about her daughter. Her eyes lose focus and it isn’t hard to translate the lines in her face as guilt. “It’s hard to say with her. We lost her father back at the end of February, and now the siblings she was getting excited about are just…” Nicole makes some motion in the air with her hand, her loosely curled fist popping open to splayed fingers before dropping back to her lap. Poof. “She’s been willful. She thinks I don’t know it, but I hear her creep down the hall at night to check and make sure we’re still in there.”

Nicole sighs. “She’s scared. Confused. She doesn’t know what to make of any of it. But she doesn’t listen to me like she used to. I don’t know if it’s because she’s eight and testing boundaries after an incredibly traumatic half year, or…” Her cheeks puff out as she pushes a deep breath from her lungs. “For all I know, she’s overheard my husband’s theory that we aren’t real and has taken it to heart.”

Davis’ brow furrows again and he shakes his head slowly. “Oh, no. That is so hard, Nicole. You have my sympathies. I’m sure it’s hard enough to deal with all of that loss without having to worry about how an eight-year-old navigates such things. Truly heartbreaking.”

He looks like he might just cry at the thought of it.

“But,” he says, suddenly brighter (Bright-er), “children are so resilient. I’m certain she’ll bounce back from it.” He tips his head curiously. “Your husband, Dr. Miller, yes? I haven’t had the pleasure yet. He believes you’re not real? Does he think you’re in a dream, or…?”

Now, Nicole does grab one of those tissues from the box on her left, turning away to spare him from having to watch her dab at her eyes. The chair only swivels back around after she’s wiped away the traces of her own emotion and sniffled once. “Sorry,” she murmurs with a shake of her head, crumpling the dampened tissue in her fist before dropping it into a waste bin under her desk.

“Ah, yes. Zachery. He thinks this reality is sound. That the world around us is what it appears to be. He just…” Nicole frowns for a moment. “God,” she sighs, “it sounds completely insane. Just, keep in mind that we’ve been through something that defies logic and explanation so far.”

Her eyes drift to a spot on the ceiling, staring there as she admits, “He thinks we’re clones?” Another sigh and she’s turning her eyes back to Bright again. “Copies of ourselves. That our real selves are out there somewhere and we’re just… I don’t know. That we’re not who we think we are at all. That… I just think I’m Nicole Miller, but I’m really just some impostor.” She shakes her head, exasperated. “Or maybe that we’re being psychically projected into these forms? I don’t entertain his theory much, to be honest. I’m me. I’m not in any way uncertain of that.”

Davis shakes his head adamantly, sliding the pen behind one ear and folding his hands on top of his notepad. “You have nothing to apologize for, Nicole. You have been very helpful and I appreciate that, especially in light of everything you’ve been through. Please, don’t even worry about me.

His blue-eyed gaze rises to the ceiling to examine the ceiling as she does, before looking back at her and nodding slowly. One brow tics upward when she mentions psychically projected but he doesn’t follow up on any questions that might lurk behind those brows.

“I think, therefore I am,” he intones. “Human nature is to try to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. The very nature of worrying and guessing at such things makes me inclined to think you are in fact you, but, you know, don’t quote me on that.”

He smiles and rises, leaning forward to offer his hand. “I think I’ve taken enough out of your busy schedule today, but I do hope things improve for you as far as the mental and emotional stress, Nicole. I’m old and a bit foolish at times, but I can tell you this — time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does alter them, makes them more of a dull ache than sharp pain.”

Nicole rises to her feet and takes the offered hand in her own. “Think nothing of it, Davis.” She manages a smile, but it’s considerably more tired than the earlier efforts. This has been a difficult discussion.

Stepping around the side of her desk again, she moves for the door to open it for him, though she stops with her hand on the handle, turning to look back at him. “Please tell your people that I’m eager to cooperate however they need. I’m not sure a lot of the others are going to understand how all of this has to work.” She means the hoops and the red tape that always impede haste within government. “If you need anything, please reach out to me. If there’s space for me to assist, to liaise…”

It’s an appeal to allow her to be useful. To give her a window into the investigation. “I’ll do whatever it takes. I can’t let this happen to anyone else.”

Bright pulls off his glasses to tuck into his lapel pocket along with the pocket square, no longer a tidy, perfectly folded rectangle, its edges softened a touch.

“I do appreciate that, Nicole. Our line of work,” and he gestures to her, including her in the category, “is rarely easy, and the some liaising,” his mouth seems to taste the word as a new one in this form, “may make it easier. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I, or someone else in my contact, will darken your doorstep.”

He steps out of the office, and then smiles. “If it isn’t me, I’ll be sure to send them with butterscotch.”

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