Dead to the World
"I'm sorry to be bothering you with this right now, Jack, this afternoon of all afternoons."
Dr. Jack Boyd listened to his associate, Dr. Edna Ankiel, who sat before his desk in a much more relaxed pose than her words indicated, pro forma words. After two and a half years working together, she knew what did and did not upset him, really. Jack shrugged, waving his hand about him in a brief, listless gesture.
"No problem. You know I'm too antsy to just sit here, do nothing. Matter of fact, I was just about to go take a look at her before you came in. You say she was under the ice for twenty minutes?"
"Longer. She chased her sled out onto the river and went in."
"Unhuh." He opened the second drawer of his desk and propped a foot up on its edge. Idly, he stared a t the scratches grooved by habitual use. Gradually, the rest of the familiar office stuck in his head, unfamiliar, new , as though after seven years calling for repairs or remodeling , or some such thing. Heightened awareness, he concluded, a big day, when tennis balls come at you the size of basketballs. He looked back to Edna.
"So, what’s your diagnosis, our prognosis, and all the rest, Doctor?"
"She's royally whacked, Hank. You'd be hard pressed to find a brainwave nearer to her than the next state."
"Hmm, dead in the water. Okay, did you brief her parents?"
"Parent. A mommy. Divorced since the kid was one. She took her to everybody else before coming to us, of course."
"Of course." He batted his eyelids to close them, his signature, well-worn expression of resignation. "So, what does she do to get by?"
"Media work. Video crosswords."
He opened his eyes. "No shit? Like backing chaos out of order. We might get
"Maybe you will. She's a real good-looker." Edna flashed a compressed smile to his uneasy smirk.
"All right. I'll go look at the kid. You can bring the mother around in about ten minutes or so."
She stood up, a surprise to strangers since the height of her head barely changed from that of her sitting plane. She stepped daintily out of the office closely followed by Jack. From there they took separate paths down the hallway.
Jack gazed at the still body of the little girl with a fervency that would have startled any other onlooker, be it a naturally inured staff member or a forlorn relative otherwise deeply entombed in muted devastation. So perfect, he thought, staring at her pink cheeks round with life, crowned by airy blond hair, sweet and clean. But dead. He glanced over to the EEG to assure himself once again that her pulse sped unbroken across the screen like some phosphorus sea flat in the depths of a black ocean somewhere, sonar without sound.
Your brain is dead, he told her thoughtfully. Your mind is dead, the machine says so. If we leave you on this mechanical bed, your body will live, perhaps for many long years. But, it will begin to die, too, little by little, and faster than if you were up and about like any normal little girl, playing and growing, working someday, stealing time for love. Just lie here, though, and your flesh will fade, streamlined by a systematic biochemical efficiency to work as little as necessary. You’ll grow ugly, not pretty. You won’t blossom, you’ll look like all the rest.
He lifted his head and broadened his sight to include the twenty-nine other brain-damaged bodies in the ward, all attached to their own life-support systems, laid out in silent rows. So deeply entranced, unaware, they prompted their visitors, mothers, mostly, into saying that they slept like they were dead to the world. A closer look would reveal the truth and its evidence of withered limbs and sere skin marking them as inmates of a type of concentration camp uniquely acceptable to society. Four wards here and hundreds more in hospitals across the nation.
He dropped his eyes back to the child. You’ll be just like these people soon, he told her silently. How can you be like this, alive yet not here? Where have you gone? I’m the expert, the leader in this field of research, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Not yet, but I’m going to find out. I will find out starting today, maybe.
He pivoted and walked briskly from the ward, his white coat hem whipping at his legs.
Edna’s wisecrack earlier in no way prepared him for the appearance of the much taller woman she ushered into his office. Introducing her as Carolyn Johannsen, Edna left. Hank watched the girl’s mother seat herself before him and thought that without question she just as easily could work in front of a camera as behind the scene. Fastidiously attired in a suit-skirt combo, she exuded a demure reserve, an affect redoubled by her finely combed hair, not a strand at stray. She hit him as the little girl grown up, now attractive and utterly self-possessed. Maybe too much so, he observed. Where was that deeply aggrieved parent of a brain-dead he had faced so many times before? He gestured to the chair too late as she settled into it.
He sat down behind his desk and folded his hands on the almost bare glass top.
“Ms. Johannsen, how do you do? Not well, of course. My associate, Dr. Ankiel, has given me a full report on your daughter’s condition.”
She nodded, her features tightening ever so subtly, devastated but tough, determined to see it through as far as she could go.
“Listen, first of all I’m truly sorry for this, this disaster that’s happened to your little girl and to you. It’s a terrible thing. Now, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I feel that frankness is best in situations like this.” Even if it is on the brutal side, he said to himself.
“You know what the others have decided?” He tapped a manila folder in front of him.
“They say that my daughter’s case is hopeless.”
Dulcet tones, he thought. Distance, he reminded himself, professionalism. He sighed, “Yes. You are aware, then, that I’m the final recourse, the last stop. Did you daughter’s physicians tell you anything about what I’m trying to do here?”
“They told me that you were unorthodox, but that you’d developed some unconventional theory that might hold promise for the future.”
“Yeah, the future,” he followed, “but nothing to show here and now. Well, I can’t really complain about that. You know, they used to say I was whacko until the Neuro net produced some positive results that first time. And when the government stepped in with funding, suddenly I was reevaluated by my peers. I became unorthodox, gifted.” He shrugged, “Who knows, thought? Defense has backed goofier things before, like Frisbee bombs, for instance.”
She blinked, seeming unsure of how to react and he quickly added, “Please excuse me. When things start coming to a head, I get carried away occasionally. I start taking stock. You’ve come at a rather particular time.”
She smiled quite sadly. “I must admit,” she said, “that’s a pretty strange introduction. I thought you’d be filling me with hope and confidence. Don’t you want my money?” she laughed ruefully.
“I’ll pump you full of hope and confidence when I run out, including federal grants. Then, I’ll go after yours. In all seriousness, though, I don’t want you to delude yourself either. For today, Tina—“
“Chrissie. My daughter’s name is Christina, shortened to Chrissie not Tina.”
He frowned, glancing down at the betraying folder. “Sorry, Chrissie. My prognosis for Chrissie is the same as that of the other specialist, hopeless. But that’s for today. I have a program of experiments scheduled that, God willing, the AMA and the feds continue to give me the green light, could mean something positive as soon as tomorrow. But, for today I have to tell you that Chrissie is never going to change. That’s the attitude you have to assume if you want to keep her here.”
He sat back, waiting for her reaction. She lowered her head a little as if reflecting. Once, she knuckled her resting hands on the chair arms. She gazed up at him as if out of painful daze, and he said to himself, I hate this shit.
“Well,” she said, her voice sing-songy at the border of control, “What can I say? Chrissie’s been like this for two months, though it seems like forever, every day. I miss her, the way she was, like only yesterday, too. Things are so much duller now, I miss her that much. So, please, do what you can do.”
This is hard, he thought. Whoever could have divorced this woman, who could have left her? Nobody, he decided, mentally shaking his head. She divorced him. No man is good enough for her. But, a last thought crept in, guiltily invited in. Except me, maybe.
“Of course, Ms. Johannsen. Chrissie is welcome here.” And the friendly smile lines just revealed around her wet brown eyes pushed him completely over the edge. “In fact, as I mentioned before, you’ve arrived at an auspicious time. Today, I’m conducting the first ever BEN intervention on a human patient just sanctioned by the government. If you care to remain here until it’s concluded, I could talk to you this evening about the results and their implications, perhaps, for your daughter.”
As a messenger service for the brain, electromagnetic waves worked a two-way street. Theoretically, then, a dormant brain could be stimulated by an artificially induced EM field. Indeed, primate experiments demonstrated in gross results the preliminary soundness of this notion. Human subtleties, however, compounded the difficulties geometrically, since the world medical establishment traditionally balked at chancing any irrevocable errors with human subjects. How strong a field and what pattern of access should be used in dealing with the delicate complexities of a living person’s brain, a traumatically damaged brain to boot?
These questions had plagued Jack for years until he pioneered the Biochemical Electromagnetic Neuronet (BEN), his synthesis of state-of-the-art PET scans with subsequent connections of human-to-human relays. The minutely computer-mapped mirroring of brain quadrant to brain quadrant seemed to offer the best possibility of reviving the functions of a comatose victim. A human-generated EM field boosted to compensate for the therapist partner’s extra energy expenditure computed out as the safest load for the patient partner. So Jack had hypothesized, and so he hoped would be borne out now as Edna and his staff readied him for this historic experiment.
Ms. Martha Ullmann lay close to death, cardiopulmonary collapse threatening to take her off at any moment. Jack hardly would have chosen her as his first subject, but the Powers-that-Be would allow him to begin only with a doubly lost soul.
Edna signaled to him that the last relay had been confirmed by the BEN computer. Soon he’d drift off into a light state of unconsciousness, a precaution against any unforeseen trauma of his own. As he drowsed, the last thing he saw was Edna holding up a thumb and forefinger in a circle next to her bristly grey head of hair. The last thing he hear before he went under was Edna saying, “Nobel, Jack, think Nobel.”
Dark, the trip seemed terribly dark, and the walls were velvet red growing cooler, throbbing as he passed through them, no, past them in the black labyrinthine tunnels they formed. Down which he traveled, dimmer, bleak, a sense of disappointment at being here, but always here. And betrayal, by … children, my children, wounds of the womb remembered, all of them distracted. And the stranger. They didn’t know, never could know, sometimes it’s like you outgrow knowing, not with your own mother, though. An essential loving, lovingness, an inability to love without being solely loved, self-loved, not knowing yourself to hate. All this now, when the crowding pain is so great and so near complete. Before, though, down one last, long, narrow place toward a light, a light, baby lemon sunshine and metallic dark green grass, in a yellow garden swing, doodleedoo, swinging on a perfect day forever.
“I tell you, it was the strangest and strongest thing I’ve ever experienced. I thought they were my thoughts, that I’d been in all these situations. I felt them! It wasn’t until I heard Edna talking to me again that I realized that the whole thing was hers, Martha Ullmann’s, her life, her last thoughts!”
He bolted his food as he talked, fiercely chewing it out of the way to make room for his words. Carolyn and Edna listened to him across the table in the steakhouse booth. Carolyn leaned in slightly over here clasped hands while Edna sat back quietly.
“I’m not sure they really weren’t your thoughts, Jack.”
“What? But, Edna, they were absolutely real! And foreign, utterly different from anything that’s ever happened in my life.”
“Sometimes when people dream, they swear they’re real while they’re having them. You’re imaginative, you could’ve created a pattern of feelings appropriate for a dying, elderly woman. You also knew something of her family history from her records and relatives who visited.”
He lifted his eyes skyward, then rolled them toward Carolyn and back to Edna. “Why are you resisting the possibility that we may have succeeded, Edna? This could be the big breakthrough we’ve been working for!”
“I refuse to lose my objectivity, Jack,” she said sharply. “I want this to work just as much as you, of course I do. But the BEN readouts showed no EM activity in her brain. Nothing changed for her the entire time you were connected, until she—”
“The instruments didn’t pick it up, that’s all. They aren’t sensitive
“—She died, Jack! God, fifty seconds isn’t long enough for you to experience what you said you did.”
He stopped at that for an instance, then said, “How fast is thought, Edna? Huh? How fast?”
“Okay, okay, I didn’t mean it like that. But you know what I’m trying to say, Jack. Scientifically speaking, there’s no data to support you. Even the facts of your narrative are off. Her whole family was here during the entire crisis.”
“That could’ve been just for show, their perception of love for Mother. She was divorced by her husband and anyway, if they loved her so much, why did they agree to let her be the human guinea pig for the experiment?”
“She was dying, Jack. As for agreeing to the experiment, perhaps you should address that question to Ms. Johannsen.” She flicked her head meaningfully in her direction. “Listen, I think we should continue this discussion later. I’ve got rounds to make.” She stood up and patted his hand, nodding to Carolyn Johannsen as she left.
He felt like climbing into his own grave. After staring down at his plate for a time, he chanced a peek up at her. She still sat with her hands folded, waiting for him patiently.
“I’m not offended. Really. It’s a legitimate question at this point. Am I really concerned for Chrissie’s sake, or am I merely trying to salve my own guilty conscience? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Apparently, even the Ullmanns didn’t give up all hope. But, you shouldn’t feel so terrible. After all, you tried to help these people out of your genuine, altruistic sensibility.”
He shook his head morosely, “Not completely. I have my own reasons for wanting to succeed. Sometimes the patients are pretty inconsequential as far as that goes.” He swallowed and added, “All of them.” He cringed inwardly as he listened for her reply.
She nodded her head, “Sure. They must be such messes as human beings to someone who’s operating at the top of his form. But you weren’t always such a success. Remember, for a long time you were a Looney Tune to everybody else.” She smiled at him winningly.
“Yeah,” he said glumly, framing his utterance with his own sick smile. “Well, Edna certainly dropped a wet blanket on things. She could be right, you know. I could have skewed the experiment’s results by knowing too much beforehand, projecting my own desires. Ms. Ullmann died too soon to learn, and the government will require a long-winded report before they go for another round. But, I swear, it was so real, so vivid. I felt Martha Ullmann’s feelings, I felt for her!”
He stared agonizingly at Carolyn and she leaned in further over the tabletop, putting her face close to his. “I believe that you were in that woman’s mind and that you shared her feelings. She may have felt that her children didn’t love her, and maybe they didn’t, enough for her anyway. But I think they loved her enough to let you try to save her.”
“But I didn’t.” He barely choked out the words.
“No,” she said, lowering her eyes thoughtfully, then raising them back to his. She reached out to grab his hands. “But, if you can, I still want you to try to save my daughter.”
“Jack, we can’t do this.”
This time Edna sat posed on the edge of her seat.
“We don’t have clearance and we couldn’t possibly get it by tomorrow, not until we complete a full report on Ms. Ullmann. That’ll take months, especially considering the shaky nature of our preliminary results.”
Jack listened quietly while she spoke, and she fidgeted as she realized the distance he was keeping. “You knew this before, Jack, we built in the extra time for the report into the flow charts long ago. Why the sudden urgency to rush everything?”
“I don’t want to wait months, Edna, I want to move now. I’m convinced that I can prove the effectiveness of my methodology with one more experiment. The government won’t cry about the clearance after the fact.”
She blew out her breath in exasperation. “You know that’s bullshit. They’ll go nuts whatever the results of another experiment. Even if we could repeat what you said happened with Ms. Ullmann, it’s not what we hoped to accomplish anyway. She died without ever regaining consciousness.”
“That’ll come later.”
“Maybe, but all of it could go to shit, too, before we can find out if you insist on this now. If the government cuts us off, we might never know.”
For a time he didn’t say anything. She stared at him wide-eyed as if seeing a stranger in his body. Eventually, he said, “Well, I am simply through waiting. We go ahead tomorrow.”
She sat back fully in the chair at last. “Why, you son of a bitch, don’t I have any say in this at all? Haven’t I been with you every step of the way? Now you want to louse it all up just because you’ve got the hots for some darling of the screen. Just to be the bold researcher in her big, brown eyes, you’re willing to fuck up the whole program!”
“That’s not so!” he bellowed, following with silence. He was embarrassed as he wondered if it was Carolyn, really. Or was it more this hunger he felt, consuming, after being so briefly with Ms. Ullmann, in her head? At the moment he couldn’t say.
Glowering at him, Edna said bitingly, “Well, include me out. I’ve got some things at stake here, too, you know, like my future.”
Later in the afternoon, he walked into Edna’s office and dropped a piece of letterhead on her desk. She looked up at him expectantly. “My confession,” he said, “in which I threaten to dismiss you and blackball you at all other institutions pursuing similar research unless you agree to aid me in this unsanctioned experiment. Satisfied?”
She read the paper, then said, “And if I don’t?”
“I’ll get some grad student to help out.”
She frowned, looking down to read the letter again. She said, “You know, it was supposed to be my turn to go in this time.”
“I can’t help that. I guess I’m pulling rank.” He smiled sickly, “You know, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.”
“I see. You also realize that this will be a blind trial. No background on the patient, nothing, to make sure you aren’t projecting through your own thought patterns. That rules out Christina Johannsen, you’re aware, I’m sure.”
“Of course.” He hadn’t thought of it. Well, it’d be better for Chrissie’s sake if he perform one more intervention on another patient. Unspoken between himself and Edna was the possibility that his intrusion on Ms. Ullmann had precipitated her death. He’d have to break the news to Carolyn tonight, though, that there would be a delay. Edna won’t be happy to learn that another experiment will follow this one immediately, and another one, if necessary, and another. But by then she’ll be in too far to do anything about it.
“You pick one out, Edna, a subject in much more stable psychological condition than Ms. Ullmann. I need more time than I had with that poor woman to do any good”
“I’ll see to it.”
“Good. Let’s say for noon tomorrow. Anything else?”
“Yeah.” She slid the statement back across the desk. “Date it.”
While he scribbled his signature on the paper, she said, “Not that it’ll do me any good anyway. The authorities wouldn’t absolve me of responsibility for assisting you just because of a threat like this. The Hippocratic Oath and all that. One other thing, Dr. Boyd. I don’t want to hear you talk to me about Ms. Johannsen other than in a professional capacity ever again.”
Having the hots for Carolyn Johannsen was as good a reason as any to risk everything, he mused while waiting for Edna to insert the final relay attachments. But he recognized that it was more than that. After his failure with Martha Ullmann, he felt a desperate need to go further than before, to help. He’d help Carolyn and Chrissie very soon, too. At present, though, his mind bubbled with thoughts of a subject selected by Edna, a patient he neither knew nor whose records he had studied, one Francis Cronin. Unknown now, but not for long, he assured himself as he drifted off. This time Edna flashed no good luck signal, mouthed no words about Nobel prizes. She simply stared at him, dimly, sullenly, until he went under.
“My fine friend.”
Jack stirred, neither in nor out. The light shone an even grey glare throughout the … the what?
“My mind, mine fine, like well-timed wine with which to dine, fine, fine friend.”
He knew this man, but couldn’t see him except for an inspected nostril, an ingrown hair, grey fleece of age.
“Poetic, chaotic, aeh? Streams and rills and courses, flood plains, watermarks, marshlands, salt flats, sea flats, or is it a C-flat? All of thought, all thought before.”
The strangeness became more separate, the thoughts distinct.
“Oh, a moment’s clarity, preferred claret, from the Old English, clarinet, of Indo-European origin related to C-flat at the cost of one C-note. You are a Geek bearing gifts, are you not?”
What are you?
“Francis Henry Cronin, not to be confused with the warrior Ronin, or Conan, or anyone, though we be warriors, we. Frank to my friends, though sometimes I speak with discretion, not to be confused with Descartes, or by the bugger for that matter.”
Where am I?
“Not of this world, my world. My consciousness relived, didn’t you know? The afterlife is the reliving of consciousness originally formed, and life, the payment for external stimuli. I think; I command my surroundings. But demands cost, a limit to accessibility. Memory is all, almost as good as outside stimuli. Life in a vacuum, afterlife, improves with the picking of better and better places from a given life. Pick out more and more details, snow, grass, swings … specifics—and who could ask for anything more? You bring me gifts, but you are a Greek.”
“Because you want me back in your place for your detail, where pain exists.”
Don’t you want to be alive again?
“Utterly not. Not sense, notsensical. I want you instead, to stay with me in the Land of the Poets!”
Hills and valleys opened up to him, long grass waving in the wind under a coal-grey sky. All of it was lovely and fantastic.
“You’re frightened. Of what?”
“Who can tell the difference?”
Aren’t you alone?
“Aren’t you? Aren’t everyone? Here, I grammatical rule. You are but a fig newton of my imagination, not to be confused with his brother Isaac, who floats among apples in his own little world.”
Francis Cronin is insane.
“Of course I’m insane! Wouldn’t you be if you controlled the horizontal, the vertical, the whole fucking video? How long do you think I’ve been in this sunken submarine anyway? Ten years, give or take ten years. Ten years! Ah, but I was lucky, I was crazy before I got here. After all, I did try to commit suicide.”
“Of course. Alcohol and drugs. The alcohol was easy, since I’m an alcoholic. But the drugs were an inspiration! As you’d expect, though, I fucked it up. Not dead. Notsensical.”
Alcoholic. Edna’s revenge.
“Sure! You ought to be, ‘cause you ain’t going nowhere, Jack, you’re staying with me.”
I want to go home, I want to go—
He began to run, thump, thump heart thundering, trying to run away from, his heart racing, toward Carolyn and Chrissie; was she insane, could she be? He stopped, though his body pulled at him fiercely thumping, heart jumping out of his chest, yanking at him.
Francis Cronin, could you ever come back if you wanted to?
“Quothe the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’ Birdbrain. Too much input. Better hurry!”
He awakened to a harried Edna perched over his bed.
“You were gone, Jack. Only five minutes under, but your EEG was as flat as a pancake almost from the start. Then we lost your heartrate. We had to use the paddles. The whole thing was a horror show. You almost didn’t make it.”
Her eyes glistened. His slitted.
“Edna, you hooked me up to a maniac, a fucking alcoholic suicidal maniac!”
Startled, she almost jumped off the bedside. “How did you know?”
“How did I know, how did I know?” he shouted. “He almost took my mind apart! I nearly died locked in his head, you idiot!”
“I didn’t think it was true. It couldn’t be! I did it as a joke, to snap you out of this stupid romance thing.”
He breathed an angry sigh. Coldly, he said, “How is he?”
“The same,” she said, almost to herself. Abruptly, she grabbed his arm. “It works, Jack, the BEN works! We’ve done it!”
“What do you know about it, Edna? You don’t know a thing, not a fucking thing.”
Grudgingly, he admitted to himself that he’d brought it on himself, after all, bullying an ambitious firebrand like Edna into the entire fiasco. Now, she’s dying to get on with the research, to forge ahead blindly. Well, let her, he decided, let her jump right on in. She can have it.
He sat up. “Where is Ms. Johannsen?”
Edna seemed to draw slowly into herself, closing her lips in a tight grimace. “Outside. Hoping to see you.”
“Send her in.”
She left without a word. Carolyn walked in, hurriedly at first, then hesitantly. Striking as always, this time she showed some wear, a few wrinkles in her usual smart outfit, perhaps a little strain around her mouth and eyes from lack of rest. After a small pause, she said, “You almost died.”
“No, but I nearly didn’t wake up.”
Could she be weeping, he wondered. He couldn’t see any tears, though.
“I’m so sorry. I feel like I’ve been using you.”
He nodded his head, not so much as agreeing with what she said, but with everything else. “I must have liked it.”
She gave him an odd look at that while stepping over to sit on the edge of his bed. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I was scared, though. And I’m tired. But, I’m all right.”
She reached a hand over and squeezed his wrist. “I’m glad. I’ll see you before you go home.”
She left. Without saying one word about Chrissie, he realized. Does that mean anything? Could she care for me like that, that much, he wondered. Or, is it an even more effective way of getting me to want to help her? God, what kind of question is that?
He stretched back in his bed and gloomily thought of Frank Cronin, buried in his own madness and silence. Content, he’d said, but happy to try to keep an interloper in his ravaged brain for new stimuli, a more vivid world of his own. Shuddering, Jack tried to shake off the thought of a never-ending existence in Frank Cronin’s wracked mind. He didn’t even want to think of all the contingencies, whether he’d retreat into his own comatose universe once the relays had been broken. Or, if the strain on his body would kill him in every sense due to the unnatural imposition. It was over, as far as he was concerned, over for good.
He settled in to rest, to sleep. Behind his closed eyes Chrissietina Johannsen’s features appeared. He turned over, scrunching his pillow under his head, but she floated before him again, baby-cheeked visage of another Carolyn with silvery blond hair.
“Shit,” he said, sitting upright, wide awake. What am I going to do? I’m no bold hero, I’m a research scientist. How can I even think of it, knowing what I know? It’s utterly nonsensical!
How can I face Carolyn again if I don’t, he thought glumly. But, the damn Net doesn’t work like it’s meant to, Ms. Ullmann and Cronin both are proof of that. Though, it does do something, he admitted. I do have some idea of what’s happening to these people. All of them, the hundred here and the rest worldwide, they all still exist somewhere, shut in other worlds of their own making.
What kind of world can a six-year-old live in? She wasn’t crazy when she fell under the ice. Like most of them, she didn’t elect her fate, unlike Cronin. Neither did Ms. Ullmann, yet I still wasn’t able to help her. So, how can I help Chrissie? I could throw my own life away chasing after some romantic illusion, just as Edna said, he thought. The stolid, beguiling face of Carolyn Johannsen passed before him. But, then the childish softness of sleeping Chrissie took her place. How can I help Chrissie, he posed to himself again. How can I not?
The nurse appeared promptly after hearing his signal.
“Yes, Dr. Boyd?”
“Call Dr. Ankiel, please, and ask her to come here. I need her to assist me with a scheduling matter. Thank you.”
The grey glow of the sky frightened him at first. He whirled around quickly as if to go back, but the padding of the dark green grass underfoot stopped him. Trees full with summer leaves grew in occasional clusters, thickening down a slope that drifted into a gentle ravine. He could see patches of color at the base of the tree trunks, mauve wine flowers and solferino ivy that calmed him with their quiet beauty. Soon, the fear lying shallow within him eased enough so that he could take one step, venture one.
He said her name almost under his breath, not sure of how loudly he needed to call to attract her attention. No sound broke the silence, so he started to descend.
He reached a first tree, a pin oak, slender and straight, comfortable to his memory. Absently, he passed a hand over its leathery bark as he stepped toward the next grove. Further down he could see a brook running along in quiet noise, talking the words of the rill to him, barely indistinct.
“Chrissie?” he called again as he reached the bank. At the top of the hillside opposite he saw movement, a head, then shoulders appearing from the other side, rising in slow ease. A woman crested the hilltop and started winding down a route through the flanking trees.
She wore a dark tartan skirt to mid-calf, woolen socks, and neat brown shoes. A bulky marine-blue sweater over a white lace blouse finished her dress save for a ribbon tying back her shoulder-length brown hair. Carolyn? But this woman’s slender, fair-skinned, very much so, he noted. Gracefully, she drew down to the stream, and Jack allowed his mouth to gape.
The young woman resembled Carolyn Johannsen, but her features without question were Christina’s as she would mature.
“Dr. Boyd,” she murmured, “Jack.”
“Chrissie, my God, you’re all grown up!”
“And you’re old.” He frowned, and she said, “Your hands. Look into the water.”
He searched the water to find the reflection of his face, no different, his hair the same, its color only slightly defined by grey as usual.
“I’m the same,” he said, puzzled.
“Old to me,” she said.
He shook his head in bewilderment. “How can you be so grown up, Chrissie?”
She nodded, “I’m a big girl now.”
“But, how, Chrissie?”
“I don’t know,” she said in a child’s sing-song, though did he hear a mocking undertone? Still perplexed, he gazed around at the peaceful valley and asked, “Where are we?”
“Here, in this place,” she said. She walked over to a nearby bush. “Look! Pussy willow.” She stroked the fuzzy buds. “And over there, lilacs.”
“Yes, they’re nice,” he said distractedly, thinking in his observation of the tiny perfection of the clustered lavender bells. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Don’t you have flowers like these at home, Chrissie, in your backyard?”
She straightened, causing her sweater to smooth out against her slim body. “Some of them. I have pussy willows in my yard. Others, Mommy told me about. But, I’ve never seen lots of these pretty flowers before.”
He squinted his incomprehension at her. “But, this is you, Chrissie, this is your place.”
“I guess so. But, there are lots of new things, too. It’s scary. I think I better go back.”
Scared? New? She turned to start back up the hill.
“Wait! Stay, Chrissie, don’t go.”
She slowed, peering back over her shoulder, and the troubled wariness in her eyes, her simple sorrow sent him feverishly through his mind for something to say that would keep her here, hold her and comfort her somehow. He put out open hands.
“Chrissie, this is a lovely place, a wonderful place. Please don’t leave.”
“But, I’m afraid.”
“Stay here with me. Please.”
She hesitated, in balance, and abruptly he understood that he feared losing her more than anything else now, a woman he’d never known, carrying him past the marking of time that had been glorious work, past all of his careful loves of the past.
“Christina,” he said quietly, plaintively.
She returned to the bank, doubtful still, and fearful. She pouted and said, “But why are we here, Dr. Boyd, why me?”
“Because …,” and he looked around again, this time spying willows drooping their leafy limbs into the stream, and pear trees near the apple trees in a grove a short way up the mild rise. And honeysuckle.
“I know this place,” he mumbled, and she solemnly moved her head up and down.
He focused his eyes once more upon her as he said, “You’re only six. You have never known my name. You don’t know this world, my world.”
He stood stock still as the stunning realization flowed through him.
“Momma,” he repeated, “Carolyn.”
She nodded, “She talked to me all the time. She likes you. But you scare her, just like you do me, like this place.”
“My place,” the place of his most profound yearnings hidden to him until this moment, his land of the poets full of manic ardor frightful to all others. He wondered if Chrissie really had heard Carolyn talk to her during one instance of the mother’s endless vigil for her comatose child. Or, could this too be his invention, another comforting undercurrent in his own very private place?
He sighed. “You’re all grown up, Chrissie, just like your mother. But, you’re not like her or how you’ll grow up yourself someday outside of this place, I think. You’re a woman I’ve never known, one I’ll never know except here. You don’t really wat to stay, do you, Chrissie?”
Sadly, she said, “I want to go home to my mommy.”
He took a leaping step across the creek and took her hand. “Come with me, Chrissie. We’ll go look for your mommy. And if we don’t find her soon, we’ll go to your place and wait for her to talk to you again.”
Chrissie the little girl beamed, and as they walked up the hill among the apple trees, she pulled him down and kissed him on the corner of his mouth.
The kiss felt dry on his mouth, the one that awakened him. Carolyn Johannsen’s beatific smile greeted his opening eyes. She pointed to the other bed, and he watched as Chrissie stir, complaining to a nurse about the sores and asking about ice cream. Crying openly, Carolyn hugged him, then went to her daughter’s side.
Edna stood over him, solemn and shaking just a bit.
“How long?” he asked.
“Sixteen minutes, forty seconds. Back and forth, it went. Sometimes we thought we’d lost you for good. You know, no response whatsoever, and I’d be ready to jolt you, and then you’d give me a blip. But your EEG was totally missing.”
“Unhuh,” he grunted. “What about Chrissie?”
She shook her head vigorously, “Nothing. No signs at all. She just sort of came out of it when you did.”
“I see.” He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.
“So,” she said, “what did you do?” The merest tremor in her voice betrayed her fierce effort to control her excitement. He glanced at her and she continued, “To bring her out of it, I mean.”
“Oh. Nothing.” He noticed her skeptical look and said, “I didn’t do anything, Edna, honest. I wasn’t even sure I’d come out of it this time.” Or, if I wanted to, he thought. “Anyway, you may have been right all along. I might have projected everything. I know for a fact that I did at least somewhat with Chrissie. Who knows? Maybe I saw Cronin’s file years ago and forgot about it, or even blocked him out. Whatever, I didn’t do anything to bring Christina Johannsen out of her coma. Her revival was spontaneous, I’ll bet on it, completely coincidental to the experiment.”
Edna surprised him by reaching over to squeeze his wrist. “Don’t talk about it now, Jack. You’ve been through a lot. We’ll go over it later, when we do the report.”
“Edna, I’m not lying to you. It wasn’t anything like you might think. I mean, I don’t really know what was happening or how much is true. It doesn’t matter because I’m giving up the research. I’m leaving the Center. I don’t think I want to do this anymore.”
Edna frowned, disbelieving, but worried, too. “But, you were right, as usual, Jack.” She said it in a forced playful tone. “The government won’t have anything to say about regulations after this kind of success. I have to admit it, you proved everyone wrong, Dr. Boyd, even me.” At the latter, she favored him with one of her familiar, wry smiles.
“You can have it all, Edna. I’ll recommend you.”
She drew back and patted her fuzzy grey hair, head half turned away. “That’s very good of you, Jack, except you’re the all-time heavyweight, now, now and forever. The people with the purse strings won’t be happy unless you, the only one to perform all BEN interventions to date, including this fabulous success, you still run the program.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You did something and we’ll find out what it was. Meanwhile, if you need a reminder, just look at the little tyke in the next bed. She used to be a bunch of carrots, remember, dead to the world? If you want to think about quitting, look at her and her mommy.” She stabbed a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the other wards, “Then, take a gander at the rest of them around here.”
He appeared to wince at that, and she relented. “You’re tired. You need a nap.” She patted his arm and left.
He pressed his temples with his fingers. She never failed to jab him directly in his nerve center. She had him, too. He knew that he couldn’t abandon all the people in the other wards, in other hospitals, and all of their families. After Chrissie’s miraculous awakening, could he blame them for refusing to accept his reason for wanting to leave the program, his doubt that he could bring back their loved ones? But, if he continued, how would they take it if he had to tell them that their lost loves didn’t want to come back?
He shook his head. If that happened, he could never tell them the truth, never. Technical failure in the procedure would be a much more tolerable form of disappointment.
Across from him, Carolyn whispered happily to Chrissie, who seemed alert but confused. Carolyn pointed in his direction, then hugged her daughter closely. Both of them looked at him now, Carolyn in open gratitude. Chrissie stared at him oddly. In vague recognition? He wondered. Did you tell your mother about your time in my world? Does she understand me better? Does she forgive me? Or, weren’t you there, Chrissie? Is a person’s world utterly solitary, like Frank Cronin’s? Maybe it didn’t matter if true, perhaps people’s ultimate happiness comes from that place where they can be perfectly alone.
He hoped not. Or, if so, he hoped that he wouldn’t see his own private world again for a long, long time. Before he searched for the woman of his dreams in his peaceful valley again, he hoped to spend a great deal of time getting to know this good woman and her daughter better here, in this shared world.