© Michael Alan
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1: Sub-basement Treatment Room SB17
They’ve turned on the Chair. It’s starting. I can’t let that bastard see me. Oh God, here it comes. Focus on something, anything. Concentrate. Count.
One – two – have to resist.
Three – four – five – he’s watching.
Five – six – – seven – get control, damn it, control.
Nine – ten – Jesus, the throbbing. What level is it?
Ten – ten – fight it, don’t let him win.
Nine – ten – damn him, damn Mellowes to hell.
Ten – – eight – – three – God help me, the throbbing.
Three – –
four – –
shit – –
oh – ohh – ohhhhhhh.
2: Cyrus Shepard, SoHo Loft, Manhattan
I’m the guy techies call when they run out of ideas – a hacker’s hacker. The convoluted puzzles I squeeze into my mind make me feel not so much like a programmer as a software therapist.
I work at night while the rest of the city sleeps – me and my machine hunting for tiny clues about why some code buried seven levels deep isn’t behaving. I have no one to ask and nowhere to go for help – I’m on my own. I’m a modern day Columbus sailing the digital ocean, secretly worrying about falling off the edge and having to stare down the great turtle that holds everything together.
I discovered computers in the fourth grade. I had a crush on Mary Beth Johnson and I tried to pass her a note. Mrs. Fletcher caught me and said eight little words that changed my life: “Why don’t we share that with the class.”
I spent the next week home, faking a cold. I found my dad’s computer. It was the first thing I liked that liked me back.
My computer might not have been as pretty as Mary Beth, but it was a whole lot less risky. It was dependable – never too tired to play, never busy with anyone else. And my computer never said it liked Billy Gardner better than me.
It was the middle of the night and four computer screens filled my SoHo loft with a soft bluish glow. The stillness was framed by the sparse sounds of the city street six stories below: a drunken laugh a block away, a truck on Broadway grinding its gears, a trashcan being kicked to the curb a few doors down.
It was the damned phone – I hate phones. I picked it up just to avoid a second ring. “Hello?”
“Cyrus? It’s Greg.”
“Greg.” I didn’t know a Greg. “Greg who?”
“Greg Cabot. Last year at Comdex – we met after your talk.”
“Oh. Greg.” I had a faint recollection of a six-foot-four blonde-haired blue-eyed pretty-boy. For me, that was strike one. He was the perfectly packaged business-school man: toothy smile, firm handshake, power dressed, and unfettered by truth – strike two. And now he was calling me in my private work time – strike three. “You do know it’s three o’clock in the morning?”
“I’ve got a dozen servers and a hundred heavy workstations that have come down with a nasty virus that’s jeopardizing two years worth of work. I need you to take a look.” He sounded desperate.
“A virus that can’t wait until morning?” Hunting these things was as fulfilling as unplugging toilets. After a lot of messy work, all you’d done was put things back the way they were. “I’m really pretty busy, Greg. Isn’t there someone else who can handle this?”
“I’ve thrown my best people at it, but the virus has infiltrated everything. It isn’t budging.” Cabot lowered his voice as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear him beg. “Cy, you’re the only one who can handle this. I really need your help, buddy.”
I wanted to turn him down, especially after he called me Cy, but Cabot had found my weakness: I can’t say no when someone’s in trouble and there’s nothing in it for me. I guess I watched too many Superman episodes as a kid. I’m a pushover. “Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do. But no more calls at 3 a.m. and my name is Cy-rus.”
“Yess! Awesome. I’ll have a car pick you up at oh-six hundred sharp. You’re a life saver, Cy.” He hung up before I could object.
Did Cabot say oh-six-hundred? The first problem was that I didn’t work on military jobs. I preferred helping people build things, not blow them up. The second problem was that I rarely even got to bed before 6 a.m., no less left my loft for a meeting.
It struck me as odd that Cabot didn’t ask about my fee. This was our first contact and he was bringing me in blind. Is he really in that big a jam?
And where is this oh-six-hundred car taking me? I tried to star-six-nine him to at least get his area code but my phone line was suddenly dead – no dial tone. Odd coincidence.
The conversation with Cabot had completely derailed my train of thought. At this hour I should have been at peak energy, but for some reason I felt exhausted. I couldn’t even remember what I had been working on before he called.
With only two and a half hours left before I had to get up, I powered everything down and made my way across the old oak-plank floor to my bed. The cool light of a full moon poured through the skylights and painted everything in the room in shades of gray.
I set my alarm for 5:30, crawled between the sheets, and gazed up at the night sky through the skylight over my bed. The brilliant lunar disk lifted my mind higher and higher – up and away from the petty worries of the city below me.
Greg Cabot, Comdex. It was after my talk about digital terrorism. He asked me something really strange. What was it? I guess I’ll see tomorrow.
I closed my eyes. Sleep came quickly.
3: Dr. Rebecca Jenkins, Greendale Psychiatric
My mother was a nurse. She taught me that work comes first. My father was a chemistry teacher. From him I learned curiosity. Stubbornness I thought up on my own.
I was fifteen when I decided to become a doctor. I came from a quaint Southern town where my ambition was considered unladylike. Mrs. Priscilla Pomeroy, my high school guidance counselor, told me, “Surely, child, you’d be much happier marrying a doctor than becoming one. With your looks you could have your choice.”
That advice not only drove me to medical school, but made sure that I never even smiled at another pre-med student.
The question of whom to date in medical school was moot. The competition was cutthroat and it took my every waking moment to keep up. During my first year the only attention I attracted among the male population was a never-ending succession of attempts to bed me. It wasn’t that the idea of sex was so unappealing, but the idea of being someone’s target, someone’s prize, really put me off. I redoubled my focus on my studies.
In my second year, brain chemistry became my passion and I decided to specialize in neuropsychiatric research. I was fascinated by the realization that the entity I thought of as me was actually just a complex set of chemical systems in the brain. Change a little of this and a little of that, and you get a whole new person.
Using chemicals to make a new person wasn’t very hard. The hard part was making the new person better than the one you started with – unless of course what you started with was so dysfunctional that almost any change would be an improvement. Luckily, there were some really messed up patients to play around with.
After medical school I interned at Greendale Psychiatric, a state-funded hospital near my hometown. There I learned how hard the old boys’ network made it to get a decent research assignment without a penis – either having one of your own or accommodating someone else’s. I held my ground. As a result, all I got were leftovers: patients so unresponsive that no one else wanted anything to do with them.
My first patient was Bojack Hawkings – a 27-year-old, single, white male, originally referred to Greendale expressing fear, self-hate, and depression. He was a well-developed, well-proportioned man with good muscle tone. His eyes expressed deep anxiety, his pupils always slightly dilated. He kept his eyes immobile, turning his entire head when he needed to see something up or down, left or right.
When Bojack’s initial therapist finally forced him to look up and to the left, he began re-experiencing the horrors of his childhood – his father with a demonic expression and coming at him with a lit cigar, his mother threatening him with a carving knife. He relived being smothered with a pillow, held under water, burned repeatedly on his limbs.
Bojack’s diagnosis was catatonic schizophrenia. Despite intensive therapy, during the course of a year, his condition progressively worsened. By the time Bojack was assigned to me, he had been in a profound catatonic stupor for slightly over six months. He exhibited full cerea flexibilitas. His limbs could be set in any arbitrary position and he would maintain the posture indefinitely.
Bojack also had the unfortunate behavior of spontaneously urinating whenever his left arm was raised above his head. The orderlies nicknamed him Teapot. Greendale humor was brutal, but it let the staff cope with grotesque human suffering that would threaten anyone’s sensibilities.
I had accumulated five profoundly unresponsive catatonics like Bojack, each exhibiting cerea flexibilitas for more than six months. Danielle, now drawn and pale, had been a 22-year old fashion model before she lapsed into nine months of catatonic stupor. The attendants called her Aurora.
Frederick, aka Goliath, was a 400-pound, six foot six, 32 year-old pro-football center who had entered catatonia shortly after his wife died in an auto accident. Manfried was a 35-year old male with a quick-growing beard and heavy body hair. The staff called him Wolfman. Herschel, aka Tevye, was a 40-year old concert violinist who had lost his career to early onset arthritis.
In theory I was looking for ways to reach into the dream world that separated these patients’ minds from their bodies. In reality, I had hopeless cases that Greendale management thought held no potential for improvement. They were vegetables and I was the gardener. My actual function was to manage the paperwork so Greendale could continue to collect an allowance from the state for warehousing these patients. In the end, it was all about money.
I hadn’t spent all that time in medical school to become a sharecropper. I was determined to make a difference to these people. There had to be a way to reach them and I was going to find it if it killed me.
The routine at Greendale was pretty much the same every day. Orderlies came in the morning to roll my patients out of their beds and into wheelchairs. Patients were positioned around the ward, looking out a window or in front of a television or staring at a painting. The theory was that, despite their immobility, their minds might be active and some amount of stimulation would be helpful.
Every two hours staff shifted the position of the patients’ arms and legs to try to preserve what little muscle tone and circulation they had left. It was a bizarre ritual.
At first, seeing these people in their frozen state was chillingly surreal for me. They looked like exhibits in a wax museum. Apparently the rest of the hospital staff agreed. Behind my back the orderlies were calling me Madame Tussaud.
The thought that these statues were living beings was disturbing. We knew they could see, they could hear, they could feel pressure on their skin – it was just that they didn’t care. Their mind had left their bodies – become disconnected and detached. It was occupying itself in some other way – ignoring sensory input and spinning on to infinity in pure thought.
I began with a strong desire to rescue these people – to reconnect them. I felt a bond of trust – they and their families were depending on me to help them out of their nightmare. As the months wore on without any progress, and with building derision from my peers, some of my sympathy turned to frustration.
I was working very hard but it felt as if my patients weren’t doing their part. My concern for my patients was replaced by raw determination to show the good old boys that I could take whatever they could dish out. My assignment had turned into a test of wills.
I tried every drug, experimental procedure, and folk remedy I could find, all without success. I brought a cot into my office and took twenty-minute naps between back-to-back four-hour shifts trying for some sign of progress. My self-respect was on the line – I needed some kind of a breakthrough as much as my patients did. I was living at Greendale – I had no life at all beyond work. In a way, I was as disconnected from the world outside of Greendale as my patients were disconnected from their bodies.
One day, by chance, an orderly brought a boom box into the ward. He was playing some old jazz standards. As A-Train came on, I happened to notice a subtle change in Bojack’s eyes. His pupils constricted ever so slightly when the music came near. I focused on that. I knew I was grasping at straws, but I had no other option. Why did his pupils react to that particular music?
4: Cyrus Shepard, SoHo Loft
WAAHH! WAAHH! WAAHH!
I reached out from my bed and slapped around until the ugly sound stopped. Alarm clocks and phones are evil cousins.
I had been roused from that stage of sleep where I desperately wanted more. Every cell in my body was voting for closing my eyes and slipping back to sleep. Why doesn’t it ever feel this good when you first hit the sheets?
I had to roll myself out of bed if I was going to be on time. And I was always on time. I counted to three, swung my legs around, and sat on the edge of my bed holding my head in my hands. I tried to remember my conversation with Cabot. Something about a virus, Cabot was in some kind of trouble, he said oh-six-hundred, and I had no idea where I was being taken – not much to go on.
I stepped into the shower to try and wake up. I felt a sharp pain as I ran the soap over my right hip. What the hell? I had a purple bruise an inch high and four inches wide. I looked at my left hip and discovered a second identical bruise. I didn’t get these lying in bed. Where did they come from?
I finished my shower and looked in the mirror as I dried myself. I had a dozen strange marks on my chest and legs – as if I had been in a fight. But I had no clue about how I got any of them. Am I falling apart from the inside out?
I glanced at the clock. It was already 5:45 and I had to get moving if I was going to be on time for my oh-six-hundred mystery ride.
I decided to dress business casual for my meeting with Cabot – with an emphasis on the word casual. I found a blue shirt and reasonably unwrinkled trousers lying on the floor next to my bed. I bent down to make sure they passed the sniff test and a sharp pain shot up my spine. This kind of stuff isn’t supposed to happen to a twenty-nine year old body. I must have had one hell of a dream.
5: Rebecca, Greendale Psychiatric
I brought in my own CD player and experimented having Bojack listen to a dozen different albums. While playing some pieces, I observed subtle responses from him – tiny eye movements. Other pieces drew no response at all. His responses varied based on what he was listening to.
I eventually found that I could also detect changes in his breathing patterns and almost imperceptible, sub-vocal sounds he made when he was exposed to particular musical passages. The stimulus/response results were reproducible. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I threw myself into documenting these results.
I expanded the investigation to my other patients and tried hundreds of different pieces from classical to jazz to rock. Some soundtracks were more effective than others, some seemed to elicit slightly different response sets. Over time I assembled a library of about fifty short passages that had a measurable impact on more than one patient.
I searched the literature for related research. It was almost too good to be true. I had accidentally stumbled upon a completely fresh approach – no one was working in this area. It was a researcher’s dream.
I coined the phrase Psycho-Aural Stimulation and fantasized about what I would say when the Nobel Committee called me. I just knew I was on to something big.
Six months had passed since I’d arrived at Greendale and it was time for me to present my project results. The Progress Evaluation Presentation was a ritual at Greendale where each researcher had a chance to present results and lobby for continued funding. The PEP was also the forum in which you were either promoted or shuffled to a backwater career path to professional oblivion.
My PEP was high-stakes poker and I knew it. My psychoaural stimulation research was unsponsored – I wasn’t pursuing a pet project of one of the senior staff and there was no one to run interference for me if things turned ugly. I was out on a very long limb and I had to trust that my results would keep anyone from sawing it off.
Twenty professionals gathered in the boardroom around a huge mahogany conference table to hear my PEP: the Greendale Chairman, the Research Director, six department heads, and twelve of my peers. The testosterone flowed freely – I was the only woman in the room.
My supervisor introduced me. “Dr. Jenkins has been working with five patients presenting total cerea flexibilitas. This is her first six-month PEP. Dr. Jenkins.”
I looked at the stony faces around the room as I walked to the podium. There were no smiles, no looks of encouragement. I felt as if I had invaded a men’s locker room before the big game. I took the microphone. “I will be presenting today on the psychoaural stimulation of subjects in catatonic stupor.”
One of the research associates on the right whispered Wax Museum to the person next to him. The second man let out a sophomoric giggle.
I paused and glared at them. “May I continue?” There was silence. I didn’t want to be combative, but I needed to maintain control. I felt my face flush. Beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. This was definitely not a friendly room.
6: Cyrus Shepard, SoHo Loft
I finished dressing with my eyes half shut so I could pretend I was still asleep. My stomach was raw and protesting. Why the hell did I say yes? It was 5:50 in the morning – even if I had time, breakfast at this hour was out of the question.
I took a last look around at my loft to make sure everything that needed to be turned off was. My loft was on the top floor of an old industrial building in SoHo. It was love at first sight. It had honest brick walls and a varnished floor of wide oak planks that had seen eighty years of sewing machines and human sweat come and go.
The twelve-foot high ceilings gave me a feeling of freedom and possibility. Except for the bathroom, there were no interior walls – the space was completely open. My books and equipment, posters and furniture were all accessible with a single glance. The room and what it held were literally extensions of my mind. I got a feeling of rightness every time I saw it.
I slid the heavy fire door sideways, let it roll back into its closed position with a satisfying thunk, and staggered into the old freight elevator. I yanked on the leather strap overhead to lower the wooden gate, and creaked and squeaked six stories down to street level.
The shaft held the sharp smell of ancient machine oil and finely ground metal – an unmistakable aroma that marked this as a place of serious work. It was a factory smell, a good smell – of machines and sweat and things being made.
My old elevator had been moving things up and down for over a half century. Most everything it lifted up, it eventually lowered back down. Sometimes I wondered if it sensed the futility of its existence. Futile or not, it was a dependable, uncomplaining partner and I respected it for that.
In my world, machines were more than inanimate objects performing functions by rote. I saw them as living creatures – friendly or hostile, loyal or fickle, generous or cheap. I don’t literally mean I thought they were alive, but I felt they immortalized a part of their inventor’s spirit – preserved something of the mind that created them.
The motor turning the gears that now lowered my elevator down its shaft was largely the creation of Charles Steinmetz. Deformed and only four feet tall, he was at first refused admission to the U.S. by an immigration officer who said he was medically unfit to enter the country. He had the brain of Albert Einstein locked in the body of Quasimodo.
Steinmetz never married for fear that his children would inherit his deformity. But his inventions were his progeny and through them I knew the man – elegant, noble, huge.
I brought the elevator to a halt about a half-inch above the ground floor. I enjoyed seeing how close I could come with one push of the brass brake wheel. I swung the gate up and made my way through the entranceway and out to the early morning street.
There was a large black Lincoln Town Car in front of my building, engine running. It was a 2001 L-edition in pristine condition – bulbous fenders, 235-horsepower V8 humming quietly, just waiting to be given its head.
The driver was reading a newspaper. I knocked on the half-open window and he perked up. “Mr. Shepard, good morning.”
It was subtle, but he acted almost as if he knew me. “Good morning.”
“Let me get the door for you sir.”
“Thanks, but I can manage.”
I slipped into the back seat and the door closed with a hushed but solid wump. The interior was lined with black bird’s-eye maple trim. The L in L-edition meant six extra inches of legroom in the back seat. Some people thought this kind of bloated car was a dinosaur – and it probably was. But I thought of it as a time machine – it was 1972 all over again: a simpler time when bigger meant better and no one worried about where gasoline came from.
My driver was a smallish white haired man with a gray cap and jacket. It’s funny how you can just tell about people sometimes – a smile, a nod of the head. He seemed like a nice guy, eager to please. I asked, “You know where we’re headed this morning?”
“Yes, sir – same place, Third and Fifty-sixth. I’ll have you there in twenty minutes.” He raised the privacy partition and we were underway.
Same place? I was still too groggy to really care. I let myself sink into the upholstery and watched as the early morning city went by outside.
7: Rebecca, Greendale Psychiatric
My career was hanging on this presentation and the only thing that drew any interest in the room were my breasts. People seemed to have made up their minds in advance that I had nothing to say.
“We’ve evaluated a population of five severely catatonic subjects, previously unresponsive to a comprehensive battery of conventional pharmacological and physical interventions. As you will see from the analysis in our study, we have successfully isolated a reproducible stimulus evoking predictable responses.”
By now, only about half the room was even looking in the direction of the projection screen. I was losing them already.
“We have overcome basic limitations predicted by Lahr and Bilenfeld, and believe we’ve established the framework for a promising new therapeutic protocol. We’ve surpassed thresholds of psychodynamic and interactional envelopes described by Rohart and Brown.”
I clicked to my second slide and two Department Heads started a side conversation. I paused to get their attention and the Chairman, his colossal midsection flopping over his belt, jiggled to his feet like a Michelin Man made of Jell-O. He walked to the back of the room to get coffee and a Danish. My supervisor nodded to me, “Continue.”
My voice began to quaver. The more I focused on it, the worse it got. My whole career depended on this presentation but my mind kept drifting to Tom Hanks saying ‘There’s no crying in baseball’. There’s no crying in PEPs. Snap out of it! “The effectiveness of our technique is derived from its cognitive behavioral aspects, both exposure and restructuring.”
Now even I was getting bored. People were passing notes, talking to the Chairman – blatantly ignoring me.
I raced through the slides, my head down, staring at my notes. I had worked so hard on this PEP. I had imagined surprised looks when I revealed my results – facial accolades for what I had been able to accomplish with these hopeless subjects. Instead this was a disaster – a crushing flop for my maiden voyage in front of the review committee.
Finally, the end slide appeared on screen. “I’ll be happy to take any questions.” The room grew silent. Dead silent. Not one person in the room had a question for me. I was invisible. I was the invisible shrinking shrink just about to pop out of existence.
At last the roaring silence was pierced as the Research Director asked, “How many of your patients have emerged from their stupor as the result of your work?”
What a prick! That’s so unfair. I looked directly at him and spoke as calmly as I could. “The same number who emerged from their stupor in your 1986 study of radical insulin therapy. None, of course.”
My supervisor glared at me, but I couldn’t let the Director get away with that cheap shot. The tension in the room was palpable. No one challenged any Director in this kind of forum – it was political suicide. But at this point I didn’t care.
The Director sarcastically repeated my words, “Of course.” He wrote a couple of words on his pad, closed his folder, stood, and said, “Thank you. The review committee will send your Department Head our evaluation.”
My face flushed again. I was sure my results indicated that we had hit on something important – something with promise. This was a humiliating rebuke in front of the entire staff. Worse, it cheated my patients of hope so that these chauvinists could demonstrate their power over me. But the Director had left the meeting and there was nothing I could do.
How much damage had I done to myself with my clever comeback to the Director? I had a bad feeling.
My PEP evaluation came a week after my presentation. It said I had too small a sample, the results were subject to multiple interpretations, and, finally, “This kind of research is not a priority on Greendale’s agenda.” The punch line came at the very end of the two-page report. “Recommendation: eliminate all funding in the next budget cycle.”
Of course, the funding they referred to was my salary. There were no other expenses of significance.
At first I was embarrassed, then outraged. I refused to abandon my patients to feed these good old boys’ egos. I was on to something important and I wouldn’t see my research cancelled without a fight.
I was at my supervisor’s office at 8:00 the next morning. I caught him as he was unlocking his door. “You know damned well that my results are significant.”
He looked at me with a pained expression – the kind you might give a persistent mosquito. “You saw the recommendation yourself. This just isn’t a priority on Greendale’s agenda.”
I was livid. I followed him into his office. “Don’t give me that crap. This is a breakthrough. You can’t just let it die.”
He hung up his coat and took a seat behind his desk. “Watch me. Funding from Greendale is out of the question. Without the Chairman’s support, it’s a non-starter. And the Chairman is not about to challenge the Research Director. The Chairman is retiring this year and he knows the Research Director is in line to head the compensation committee that will vote on his retirement package. You sealed your fate when you brought up his old insulin study. There’s nothing I can do.”
What a weasel. “How do I keep my program alive?” There was venom in my voice. All this political maneuvering and worrying about retirement packages had nothing to do with my patients.
My supervisor turned and switched on his computer. He was dismissing me just like that.
“How do I keep it alive, please?” This time I tried sounding sweet and vulnerable.
He turned back to me. “You have only one possibility. Get a grant – an external grant. Get your funding from the outside, pay for a little of Greendale’s overhead, and you can feed your patients radioactive cockroaches for all they care. But you’re not going to get a dime in our next budget cycle. That’s final.”
“So how do I get an external grant? Please?”
8: Cyrus Shepard
My driver pulled up to Cabot’s office building just before 6:30. It was a large but nondescript structure – glass and steel rising into the air without the slightest hint of what activity went on inside. I reached for my wallet but the driver said, “Everything’s taken care of. There’s a private elevator right through those doors. Good luck.”
The doors he had pointed to looked like a freight entrance, complete with loading dock. I entered and was surprised to find a gaudy mirrored elevator with hundreds of small blinking lights reflected back and forth to infinity. This machine must have been a hooker in a previous life – it was all flash and sizzle.
I was surprised to see there were only two buttons: G and 48. I pressed 48 and about a minute later stepped out into a grand lobby of plush red carpet and curved marble. It was deserted except for an expressionless guard who greeted me with, “Please sign in, sir. I’ll need two forms of identification and a photo ID.”
I signed my name and showed my driver’s license and credit cards. “I’m here to see Greg Cabot.”
The guard typed my name into a security computer. “I don’t have a Cyrus on the list. Is there another spelling?” There was a hint of accusation in his voice – as if I didn’t really belong there.
“Greg Cabot called me at 3 a.m. last night and sent a car to pick me up for a meeting this morning. Maybe he didn’t have time to update your list. Can you call him and tell him I’m here?”
The guard ignored my request and looked at his list again. “Ahhh. Cy Shepard. Please place any metal objects in the bin and step through the gate.”
I removed my keys and the tiny flash disk I wear around my neck and stepped through their scanner. Satisfied that I didn’t have an Uzi in my pants, the guard looked at my flash disk and sent me through a door where a second guard repeated the exact same exercise – and then a third guard did it all over again. I was being greeted as if I were there to blow up the building.
The third guard led me into a tiny windowless room and directed me to sit. He locked the door behind him as he left – double locked it. I heard a key turn in the doorknob and then a second later a deadbolt slid into position. Very odd.
All of this security pomp and circumstance left me cold. If someone really intended to do harm to this place, he’d haul a five-gallon can of gasoline up in the elevator, dump it in the lobby, and light it. The whole floor would be toast in minutes with the hydrogen cyanide coming from the burning nylon carpet doing a fine job – and he wouldn’t need to show two forms of identification or a photo ID. All this security rigmarole did was put everyone on edge and make jobs for people whose primary talent was finding a name on a list.
Fear was replacing sex as the core value of our popular culture. Even with as many side problems as it brought on, a national obsession with sex was a whole lot more fun to watch.
I was locked in this room sitting at a small table with two straight-backed chairs. It was obviously a holding area for visitors they didn’t trust. There was a peephole on the door. Every few minutes I saw the bead of light change in the lens as someone peered in at me. What the hell is this all about?
9: Rebecca, Greendale Psychiatric
A couple of months had passed without any word about my NIH grant application. The Research Director and his cronies assumed they had taken care of me with the recommended budget cut after my disastrous PEP, so they were leaving me alone to wrap things up. At least I no longer had to fend off offers to join someone else’s project if we could “get to know each other better over a couple of drinks.”
Rain was pelting the windows as I was preparing final project documentation and getting ready for the transfer of my patients to a long-term care facility. Apparently the meager allowance we were getting from the state was no longer sufficient to induce Greendale to keep them here.
“Dr. Jenkins?” I looked up to see a man in a Fed-Ex uniform standing at my office door.
“Sign here please.” He held out an electronic clipboard for me to sign. I scrawled my initials in the blank space and he handed me an Overnight Express envelope. The return address was National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.
Would they send a rejection Overnight Express – wouldn’t ordinary mail be sufficient? I held my breath and waited until he left. Either way, this wasn’t something I wanted to share with anyone else quite yet.
Over the last several months I had resigned myself to seeing my project shut down. I made some calls, wrote some letters – but it was pretty clear that no one had an interest in early stage research from a young resident who didn’t have the support of her own management.
I supposed that a final rejection from the NIH would at least give me some closure. I was thinking about going back to school and changing my specialty to something a little less involving – maybe dermatology.
I brought the envelope over to my desk and ripped the edge open with trembling hands. There was virtually no chance of an unsolicited proposal being accepted from a young, unknown researcher – especially without endorsement. Yet I held this envelope in my hand and that had to mean something.
The letter read, “The Funding Committee is pleased to inform you…”
Per my NIH grant request I had been given funding for a one-year study of ten patients complete with enough money for a four-person staff. I sat there in a state of shock. You always see pictures of people celebrating victories of one sort or another with cheers and smiles and high fives. I had fought so hard for this that I now had nothing left in me but exhaustion. I broke down and cried like a baby.
My funding covered a research assistant to help document results, a part-time musicologist to assemble the soundtrack library, a computer programmer to create a system for organizing and playing the music, and a nurse to supervise the hospital staff, seeing to it that patients were properly cleaned, fed, and repositioned every two hours round the clock.
For every grant dollar I spent, Greendale got fifty cents to cover supposed overhead as its share of the prize. Greendale was already being paid for my patients’ food and housing expenses by a number of other government agencies and insurers. The overhead assessment was a bonus for Greendale. I had essentially turned into a profit center for them – the more I spent under my grant, the more they raked in.
It wasn’t fair for my sponsors, but this was how things worked in the world of research and I assumed the NIH knew it. Despite the strange economic arrangement, this was a heady time for me – my first real funded project. There were a thousand details to sort out. Before, my energy had come from raw determination. Now I was driven by the growing needs of the project.
My first task was to begin recruiting my team. Technically, I was in charge. By tradition, my chain of command could “suggest” names of people to fill my vacancies. I got a note from the Research Director proposing four existing Greendale staff members.
I knew three of the people he proposed. They were organizational deadwood – people who had failed to make a meaningful contribution in years and were being carried along as part of the overhead by bureaucratic momentum. I assumed the fourth name on the list had similar credentials.
The Director was trying to foist these slackers off on my budget. I scrawled, “No thank you” on the top of the memo and put the note in the Director’s mailbox. I really wanted to put it someplace else on the Director, but decided against it.
I was getting what I needed and this was no time to waste energy. I knew that setting myself outside the Greendale political structure would eventually cause problems. If I succeeded, people would resent me and if there was the slightest setback, it would be magnified beyond recognition. Nonetheless, I had my funding and at least for now getting my new project off the ground was all that concerned me.
I was on my way to the copy center the next morning when I passed the Research Director’s secretary in the hall. She was one of the first people I’d met at the Institute and from the start she seemed to be sympathetic. She motioned for me to come closer and then whispered, “He went ballistic over whatever you wrote in that note. I’d watch my back if I were you.” And she kept on walking.
I didn’t need these people’s help, but I hadn’t thought about the possibility of sabotage.
10: Cyrus Shepard
An old framed oil painting of Donald Rumsfeld hung on the wall of the waiting room in which I was now wasting my morning. He seemed to be staring right at me with a knowing little smile – as if he had been watching Homeland Security tapes from a camera snaked up through my toilet and knew I had a mole on my left cheek.
As much as I didn’t like our new national preoccupation with make-believe security, I had even less use for the securicrats who had seized power. They used logic that fit into thirty second sound-bites to fiddle around with social systems so complex no human being was smart enough to understand the consequences. More often than not, innocent people starved or lost their homes or died from the meddling.
Our bombs were liberating people half-way around the world that we were afraid might not like us. After blowing up their sons and daughters, mostly we succeeded in removing any doubt about how they felt about us. The engine of fear was a very robust machine. Suspicion lead to actualization – it was a self priming pump.
My only comfort was that I wasn’t in charge, because I was sure these problems were so complex I couldn’t do any better myself. It wasn’t that we had the wrong people in these jobs, it was that these jobs should have never existed in the first place. No one should ever wield the kind of power we vested in these bureaucratic gasbags – and no thinking person would ever be so arrogant as to accept the terrible responsibility. Maybe arrogant gasbags were a perfect fit for the job after all.
I was running low on things to complain about when I heard someone fussing with the door locks. Cabot entered the room, pushing an empty wheelchair on ahead in front of him. He looked exactly the way I had remembered him – perfectly coiffed hair, expensive shoes, manicured fingernails. He said, “I’m glad you could make it on such short notice. There’s more riding on this than you can imagine.”
I looked a little closer and guessed he’d been in the office all night. His $200 custom Savile Row shirt had circular patches of un-business-school-like sweat under both arms and there was a hint of blond stubble on his face. He was one stressed out puppy – which made my getting up at 5:30 in morning just a little more bearable.
“Good morning. So we have a virus?” I was more than a little curious about what was so urgent.
“A super virus.” He seemed to be looking at me with an odd intensity – trying to read something from my clothes or facial expression. It felt weird, unnatural.
“I’ll be happy to take a look and see if I can help. If I think I can kill it, I’ll need two thousand a day plus expenses, win or lose. If not, there’s no charge.”
“You got it, Cy.” He nodded his head as if the fee was no problem. I wondered if I should have asked for more.
He said, “I’m afraid I have to take you to the lab in this thing.”
“I have to ride to your lab in a wheelchair?”
11: Rebecca, Greendale Psychiatric
I posted position announcements on the cafeteria bulletin board and on a couple of Internet job boards. Two days later, waiting for me at my office door when I came in, stood a lanky fellow in jeans. He smelled funny – a mix of body odor and soiled clothing hidden under a layer of spray-on deodorant. His name was Lawrence.
He wore thick glasses, couldn’t be ninety pounds soaking wet, and had hair down to his shoulders which hadn’t seen a brush in months.
“Are you the one looking for a programmer?” He sounded as nervous as if he was asking for his first date. Between his strange smell and his halting speech, this didn’t look very promising. I assumed he was a techno-geek who spent his days sleeping and nights drinking diet Coke, eating Fruit Loops, and playing video games.
“Where did you see the posting?”
“Um, um, um.”
He was so wound up he couldn’t answer a simple question.
“Why don’t you leave me a resume and I’ll get back to you if I’m interested.” He could see from my expression that this wasn’t going to work.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I really want this job. I rode all night on the bus from Pittsburgh to get here. Please let me show you something.”
I invited him into my office to sit just so he wouldn’t collapse in the hall. He was obviously not what I had in mind.
He asked, “Do you have an Internet connection I can use?”
I showed him my computer and he loaded a Web page. It was an online jukebox, very slick. I could pick artist, title, style, or a half dozen other criteria and the machine played the music through my computer.
“You wrote this software?”
“All of it. It’s my own server. I did everything. It’s the technology you asked for in your job posting. Look at this.”
He began clicking here and there on the Web page, frantically showing off one feature after another. He had no idea if I understood anything he said – he just raced ahead pounding on the keyboard at full throttle.
“Okay – I think I see what you’ve done. It’s very impressive, but why do you want this job?”
“I had to leave college three years ago to take care of my mom when she got sick. She stayed at home because we couldn’t afford a hospital.” He looked away, as if he was ashamed of what he was about to say. “She went catatonic four months before she died. I tried so hard, I really did. But she was just somewhere else.” His eyes brimmed with tears. “I really want this job.”
I hired him on the spot.
Especially after the warning I had gotten about watching my back, I needed to find a nurse who would be loyal to my project and not the Director. That meant choosing someone relatively new to the organization.
I remembered Gloria, a young night shift staffer I had met a few months before. She didn’t have much experience, but I could tell she had good energy and her heart was in the right place.
She had a pretty face and slender build. Her hygiene was the inverse of Lawrence’s – clothes always fresh and ironed. She wore little makeup, and had clean, clear skin that had the faint old-fashioned aroma of Ivory soap.
She was a bit of a loner and despite the long line of male attendants who tried to get her attention, Gloria seemed to have little interest in socializing. Her focus was on her job and that was just where I needed it to be.
I approached Gloria near the end of her shift. “Have a minute? There’s a project I’m working on that I think you might find interesting.”
“Dr. Jenkins, isn’t it?”
“I’ve just gotten funding for a research project using psychoaural stimulation on catatonic subjects.”
“You run the wax muse...”
“Yes, Madame Tussaud at your service.”
“No problem. Listen, I know my project isn’t popular around here but I’m sure that I’m on to something important. I’m looking for a few good people to help me prove we can reach these patients. I’ve seen you work and I think you’d fit right in.” We talked as we walked to my office. I explained what I had discovered so far.
We entered my office and I offered her a chair. She asked, “How many other nurses did you ask before me?”
“You’re my first choice.”
“Now why does that sound hard to believe?”
“It’s true. I need someone who is more concerned about her patients than scoring points with management.”
“What’s the assignment?”
“I need someone to make sure the regular hospital staff does their job. I can’t have the trial results influenced by uneven care. I need someone who is dependable and can commit to the project, someone who isn’t into politics. I need you.”
“You’ve heard that I wasn’t very happy here? I was actually thinking about leaving in a month anyhow – I’ve already given notice. They have a replacement lined up. I was planning on taking a few weeks off to unwind. These hours have really been a strain and the attitude has been even harder to swallow. I’m just exhausted. I’ve got a beach in Bonaire waiting for me. Two weeks in the sun snorkeling and drinking Pena Coladas. When I get back if you still need someone I’ll be happy to help out.”
“How long will that be altogether?”
That was a problem. I couldn’t hold off that long. The clock was ticking, money was already being spent, and I needed to start before then. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”
I could tell she sensed my disappointment. She said, “I understand. I appreciate you thinking of me. It really does sound as if you have an exciting project but I’m just too burned out right now. I need this vacation – there’s nothing left.”
“Give me a call when you get back. You never know.”
She stood and walked slowly out the door. I now had a real problem. I needed to fill this position quickly and Gloria was the only possibility I knew of. I picked up an internal phone directory to start my search again and Gloria poked her head back in my door.
She said simply, “Or I guess I could start tomorrow if I put in some double shifts.”
12: Cyrus Shepard
When I was a kid, I’d been wheeled out of a hospital in a wheelchair when I was perfectly capable of walking, because they told me insurance regulations required it. I couldn’t imagine what risk management wizard came up with Cabot’s wheelchair requirement. It seemed pretty silly, but I had nothing else scheduled for this hour of the morning, so I decided it was easier to play along than raise a fuss.
He strapped me into the wheelchair with a seat belt. The metal was freezing cold. The chair must have been stored outside. Cabot then held out a black cloth bag. “Put this on your head.”
Enough was enough. “You’re kidding.”
“Cy, the only way I can get you into where we’re going is to make sure you have no idea where you are. This place officially doesn’t exist. It’s run by people who don’t exist. It’s all as dark as dark gets. Trust me that you don’t want to know more. You have to put this thing on.”
At first it just seemed stupid. I wasn’t about to put any bag on my head. But Cabot was looking at me as if this was simply standard operating procedure. I returned his stare for thirty seconds and finally I gave in. I had to admit I was more than a little intrigued. Three security stations, a swank forty-eighth floor lobby, an original oil of little Donny Rumsfeld on the wall – maybe this was more than a file directory gone bad.
I slipped the bag over my head. Cabot pulled drawstrings snug around my neck, and we were off.
It was eerie being shuttled around in the wheelchair in nearly total darkness – Space Mountain without the screaming kids. I felt the heat from my breath as it passed through the mesh near my mouth. The cloth had a musty smell – I should have asked if the bag was new, but it was too late now. We made our way down the elevator and to a vehicle with some kind of mechanical lift that hoisted me and my wheelchair aboard with a whine and a clank.
Cabot said to someone, “Priority package for the Psycho-Aural Research Lab.”
A new voice asked, “Is the cargo secure?” I assumed that was me. The engine started and we were off.
I guessed we had left from the loading dock I’d seen on my way in. We made a hard right turn and I felt a sharp pain on my left hip. Some tubing on the wheelchair had dug into my side as I leaned into the turn. It was just where I had discovered the bruise earlier this morning. I checked the other side of the chair and found another piece of tubing where my other bruise was. Something very strange is happening here.
13: Rebecca, Greendale Psychiatric
The good news about the musicologist I needed to find was that I didn’t have to worry about loyalties – there were no internal candidates to choose from. My requirements, however, made the position difficult to fill.
I needed someone who had an ear for structure, had mastered music theory, and could organize a catalog of music based on patient response categories. It was an odd assignment that really wouldn’t further the rest of any musician’s career.
Finding musicians who needed work wasn’t hard at all. I contacted the local union and had a list of thirty performers to choose from. Of course, describing what I wanted them for was a bit of challenge. None of them got past the initial phone interview – not even the blind drummer who hadn’t had a paying job in years.
I placed an ad in the local paper and eventually found Jeb, a bluegrass banjo picker with a flawless sense of rhythm and pitch. He was a wiry fellow with long, lean fingers, deep-set eyes, and an ever-present toothy smile. He was quick to laugh and always ready to lend a hand.
Jeb was classically trained as a pianist, but followed his sweetheart out on the road. She was an aspiring country singer and traveled from bar to bar in the South doing one week stands. When they broke up, Jeb was left in the cold so he headed back home.
It had been a few months since his last paying gig, and Jeb welcomed the idea of a regular income for a while even if it didn’t involve much in the way of applause when he was done.
I interviewed six first-year residents for the research assistant position. They were all men. My first three choices turned me down, although two of them offered to try somewhat more temporary positions. I couldn’t believe how easily any interest that I showed in these men immediately translated in their minds into an offer to go to bed with them.
Word had obviously gotten around, and none of the up-and-comers wanted to cross the Research Director and work in the Wax Museum. My choices were really limited.
I decided to ask Debbie, the only woman resident in the entire group. She didn’t have the academic qualifications of my first choices and I was worried that I was settling for second best. I explained the project goals, showed her my data, and asked her to think about the assignment.
She was waiting for me the next morning.
“I have something to show you.” Debbie looked as if she had been up all night. She pulled out a chart and spread it on my desk. She must have spent hours going over my data. She had found a small error in one of the calculations showing the correlation between stimuli and responses.
“Does this mean you’re interested in the assignment?”
“No. I like running regressions until six in the morning just for fun. When can I start?”
“You already did.” She reminded me of myself a year earlier.
I had recruited good people for this project. Now the question was how were they going to work together as a team – and could I lead them?
14: Cyrus Shepard
I sat relaxed and blindfolded in the wheelchair as the van sped towards Cabot’s “as dark as dark gets” installation. I listened to the sounds of unseen traffic as we turned this way and that, jumped potholes, started and stopped. There was a rhythmic ump, ump, ump from the seams in the pavement.
A half-hour into our trip we stopped for what I assumed was a traffic light and I heard the snarling chatter of kids on a playground. I hadn’t been on a playground in a dozen years but my stomach still tightened at the sound. I guess I’d never really completely recovered from my Mary Beth adventure.
I almost expected to hear my classmates’ taunts on the playground again: Lover boy! Lover boy! My mother tried to soften the blows. She said they were jealous of me. Jealous of what? – the humiliation, the isolation, the loneliness?
The light must have changed and we started moving again. With nothing to look at and no new childhood traumas to relive, I drifted off to sleep.
I had no idea how long we drove.