The Study Group
Five Years Later
I hunched over the work bench and reviewed the schematics for the fabrication machine. We had been working for hours in the lab.
But not just any lab. My lab.
“You see what I mean?” I asked. “If the feed belt begins here, the workers won’t be able to move by it easily.”
The head engineer scratched his chin. “Yeah, alright. I see it now. You’re right.”
“It’s an easy fix though,” I replied. “Just move everything over a foot.”
He nodded. “You’ve got it. I’ll get the boys to adjust what we have. No problem!”
I watched him carry the blueprints over to the other engineers and discuss the changes. It was satisfying giving orders and seeing them fulfilled almost instantly. I had the expertise and authority. Nobody else.
I had loved the years I spent at ABQ Labs. On a professional and technical level, I had grown so much there. That job made me the woman I was today. I still missed it every now and then.
But then this opportunity came along. Years ago, when I was completing my master’s project, my thesis wasn’t viable. The idea of retrofitting old motherboards just didn’t make financial sense. It was cheaper to buy new ones. But a lot had changed in the years since then. The price of silicon and germanium had skyrocketed. Resources were scarce. There were new tax credits for companies that invested in electronics recycling programs.
Now the idea of upgrading motherboards was profitable, and grew more profitable every day.
I quit my job a year ago to start a company performing these upgrades manually. It was slow going, one computer at a time. We had grown like crazy in that year, expanding to satellite locations all over the southwest. But now we were taking the next step. Building machines that could perform the upgrades automatically. Feed a motherboard in one end and it would perform all the necessary tasks like a doctor performing surgery.
The whole thing was a dream come true.
“Miss Hamilton?” one of the engineers in a hardhat called. “They’re asking for you.”
I glanced at my watch and left the lab. The three investors who had bought into my company were waiting for me in the large conference room.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I said. “Some changes needed to be made, but everything is fine.”
“Not a problem,” Jerry said. “How do the numbers look this week?”
Meeting with them felt like presenting my master’s project. They were always looking for holes or drawbacks in whatever I told them. But I was well-prepared and I always aced these presentations.
“We’re well ahead of schedule,” I said, barely suppressing my smirk. “The holdup with the laser-etching machine ended up being a non-issue. And we’re making excellent progress with everything else.”
“Well?” Mr. Jackson asked. “Don’t keep us in suspense. What’s the projected completion date?”
“We’re two months ahead of schedule,” I said proudly. “These automated fabricators will be up-and-running by Labor Day.”
They bombarded me with technical questions and details, but they trusted what I told them. When the presentation was done they congratulated me and said they were thrilled with my company’s progress.
“You’re going to make a lot of money when this goes live,” Jerry told me.
I shrugged. “That’ll be nice. For now I’m focused on the work.”
“That is a great attitude! That’s why you’re so successful!”
I smiled. “I learned back in college never to get complacent.”
After they left I glanced at my watch. Normally I worked late every night, but today was Friday. And there wasn’t much else the construction team needed me to do today.
I said goodbye to the head engineer and slipped out of the office. My Tesla Model Y was still going strong after five years, which was great since the price of gas had been skyrocketing lately. Adam kept telling me to buy a new one but this one still ran fine.
It was a short drive to the University of New Mexico Art Museum. I bought a ticket from the nice old lady behind the counter and then checked the tour guide schedule.
“The next tour begins in twenty minutes,” the nice lady told me.
“That’s fine. I’m going to go find the one that already began.”
I roamed through the museum. The floors were dark wood and the walls were pleasing shades of grey that made the colors of the artwork really stand out. I made my way through the Modern Art section until I reached the Impressionist section. From there I heard his voice drifting through the museum and was able to track him down.
Joey stood in front of a tall portrait of two young girls. A crowd of ten or twelve museum patrons stood around him in a semi-circle as he excitedly explained he painting.
“Renoir loved everything brilliant and consoling in life. Here Renoir depicted the glowing radiance of two young women on a warm day. The older sister, wearing the same blue flannel that was commonplace among female boaters, is posing in the center of the evocative landscape of the small town where Renoir spent much of the spring of eighteen eighty-one. See how she gazes absently beyond her younger sister, who appears to have just dashed into the picture playfully?”
I watched him from a distance, off to the side where he couldn’t see me. I loved seeing him so happy and fulfilled in life. He loved working with art in the museum, both giving tours and setting up the art displays. There was nothing more attractive than seeing a man perfectly in his element.
“This concludes the tour,” he said sadly. “Feel free to roam through the rest of the museum and see the rest of the Renoir exhibit that we did not view today. And if anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask me!”
The patrons dispersed. A few tipped Joey, which he accepted with grace. Then a little boy tugged on his arm.
“I have a question,” he asked in a high-pitched voice. “How do you become a museum tour guide?”
Joey crouched down to the boy’s level. “That’s a great question! First you need a liberal arts degree in one of the four primary art studies. A master’s degree in Art History is also usually required. After that you’ll get your professional art history certification. That usually takes eighteen months. Then you’re good to go, little man!”
The boy turned to his mother. “I want to do that! I want to do art history!”
The mother gave Joey a patient look. “Timothy is more interested in computers. Aren’t you, Timothy?”
“I don’t care about computers. I want to start art! And paint!”
Joey made a soothing gesture to the mother, who stepped away. I walked closer so I could hear what he whispered to the boy.
“Listen to me, little man. You’ve got to follow your heart.”
“Heck yeah, dude. Never let anyone else tell you what to do in life. Do what you want. That’s why it’s your life. You feel me?”
He fist-bumped the little boy, who ran off to his mom and was excitedly talking about Renoir and impressionism.
Joey rose and smiled after the boy. That’s when he saw me. His handsome face lit up like I was Santa Claus. “Teach! What are you doing here!”
He hugged me tightly. He was still as strong as an ox. “I haven’t been your Teach for a very long time,” I said, a play-argument we had at least once a week.
Joey kissed me on the forehead. “That’s not true. You teach me shit all the time. Like the other day when you were explaining, um, the difference between, ah, those two types of circuits I think… Wait, don’t tell me…”
I laughed and said, “I appreciate that you try to listen to everything I tell you. But there’s no exam to study for. I slipped out of work early and decided to see my favorite museum curator.”
“Are you allowed to do that? Since you’re the boss and all?”
I slipped my arm around him as we walked along. “Being the boss means I can do whatever I want. But we’re also way ahead of schedule. We’re going to beat the deadline by two months. I can afford to slip out early to see my boys on a Friday. And to get pizza.”
“Fuck yeah, pizza. Now you’re talking.”
We lived just three miles from the museum, so Joey usually rode his bike to work. Today he left his bike in his office and rode home with me. We picked up two large pizzas on the way home. One Hawaiian and one pepperoni, the same thing we always got. Friday night pizza was our typical routine, one which I had been missing a lot in the last two months while working at the lab.
The other two cars were already in the driveway when we got home. Joey and I came in through the garage door and I yelled out, “Pizza! Come and get it!”
Adam half-smiled as he greeted me in the kitchen. He still looked young even though he was in his late thirties. There were some wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled, but it made him look distinguished. He still had the messy, boyish brown hair he always had.
He kissed me and said, “I’m glad you slipped out early.”
“Me too. How was work?”
His eyes sparked with excitement. “Great, actually. We’re working on a new chip design…”
I grinned while he explained their most recent project. He was the Chief Executive Officer at ABQ Labs now. Making all the big, strategic decisions rather than getting his hands dirty. I had been worried that he would miss the technical stuff when he got the promotion, but he absolutely loved being in charge. It suited him.
Joey opened a trio of beer bottles and handed them out. “Happy Friday.”
We clinked glasses. “Where’s Paul?”
Adam gestured with his beer. “Where else? Out in the shed tinkering with stuff.”
I went out into the backyard. Fitzy jumped up from the grass by the shed and lumbered over to greet me, jumping up on his hind legs to lick my face. I gave him a few seconds of attention and then went into the shed, where hundreds of machines and fans were humming softly. His cryptocurrency mining was still going strong. Stronger than ever, in fact. He never grew tired of it as a hobby, which was just fine by the rest of us. It generated a nice source of extra income for the family.
The family. I smiled at the thought, because that’s what the four of us were now. It was crazy, and it didn’t make any sense to most people, but it was a fit for us. That was all that mattered.
And if people whispered behind our backs and gave us weird looks at the ABQ Labs Christmas Party? Well, then fuck them.
I poked my head in the shed. “Pizza’s here.”
Paul was wearing a tight Metallica shirt and had his hands deep inside a computer tower. “Hey babe. I’ll be there in a little while.”
“Whatever you’re working on can wait, surely.”
He shook his head without looking up. “This machine won’t post to the BIOS. I think there’s a short somewhere, but I cannot find it.”
“That definitely sounds like something that can wait until after pizza.”
He groaned. “It’ll just drive me nuts. I’ll be there when I’m done.”
I put down my beer and shouldered in next to him. “Let me take a look. A pair of fresh eyes will help.”
“Thanks,” he said as he got out of the way.
Paul was right: there was a short somewhere in here. Unless the CMOS battery was dead, but that was unlikely. I moved cables around and caught a glimpse of a piece of metal resting against the motherboard.
“I think I found it.”
I reached deeper into the computer, feeling around without seeing. My fingers brushed against something that was loose. It was a piece of metal, cold and smooth. Instead of being made of sharp angles it was curved, with something faceted on the end. I pulled it out…
And gave a start.
It was a ring.
A ring with a princess cut diamond on the end.
“What…” I gasped. “What is this? Paul? What is this?”
Paul crouched down like he was picking something up. But then he looked up at me. There were tears in his stormy eyes. When I realized what was happening I turned toward him. My elbow hit the beer bottle on the work bench and knocked it over, spilling beer all over the work space.
“Shit! I’m sorry, let me clean this up…”
Paul laughed. “It doesn’t matter. It’s fine.”
That got my attention. If he didn’t care about beer being spilled on his workbench, then this was truly an important moment.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I’ve known for years, but I’ve held back because I wasn’t sure if you were ready. Well, now I’m pretty sure you are. Sarah Hamilton, will you marry me?”
Tears ran down my face. “This… This is a pretty big gift. I don’t know how we will ever be even after this.”
He smiled up at me, grey eyes sparkling. “Then you can spend the rest of your life paying me back.”
Footsteps crunched in the yard outside. Joey appeared in the doorway to the shed and let out a loud curse.
“Goddamnit. Adam! Come quick! Paul broke the truce!”
Paul stood up. “I was first.”
Joey jabbed a finger at him. “This isn’t fair at all! Not after what we talked about!”
“Sarah is making me rethink my philosophy.”
“Truce? What truce?” I demanded. I was still crying.
Adam came running out to us and groaned when he saw the ring in my palm. “Fuck.”
“We were going to do it together,” Joey said, shooting a glare at Paul. “All at the same time.”
“You two are free to do it right now as well,” Paul pointed out.
Joey threw his hands in the air. “I’m still waiting on my ring! The jeweler’s not done with it!”
“I do,” I said through a tightening throat. I slid the ring on my finger. “I do, Paul. And I do, Joey. And I do, Adam. All three of you, whether you have rings now or not.”
I hugged each of them individually. By the end I was sobbing uncontrollably. Totally ugly-crying. Fitzy cocked his head at me like he couldn’t figure out if something was wrong.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry with happiness, Teach,” Joey said.
I shook my head. “I’m… I’m not! I’m crying… because I spilled… my beer… and the pizza… is getting cold…”
The three of them laughed, then hugged me together. Surrounding me on all sides and resting their heads against mine, the way they did when I had had a bad day and needed to be comforted. I felt safe when I was with them. In their arms.
“I can’t believe Paul jumped the gun,” Adam whispered.
“Yeah!” Joey said pointedly. “Totally a dick move, dude!”
“He did it in a very creative way,” I replied, wiping my face. “It’s going to be tough for the two of you to top it.”
Joey blinked. “You mean we still have to propose?”
“I only see one ring on this hand,” I said, holding it up. The diamond sparkled and glistened on my finger. It made me tingle.
“How about I give you some pizza?” Adam said, kissing my hair. “It tastes better than an engagement ring.”
“Pizza is good.” I pointed at Adam. “He wins the engagement.”
We laughed and joked and cried some more as we went inside and started discussing wedding plans, the four of us happier than we ever thought we could be.