The screaming wakes me, right from the other side of the building.
6:42. The same time as every other day. I don’t remember the last time I had more than an hour’s sleep. Though, in fairness, there are a lot of things that I don’t remember. I don’t bother fixing my blonde shoulder length hair for Laurie any more, let alone bother to fix make up. I simply swing my legs from the zed-bed, erected with a decreasing temporality in the corner of the smaller of the building’s two laboratories, and make for the source of the noise. I grab an anonymous vial and a sterilised hypodermic needle from a shelf by the door – a snooze button for the alarm clock. The corridors, like the rest of the facility, are clinical, bleached eye-stinging white with strip lighting. I move past one of the patient bedrooms on my right, a room that L hasn’t slept in for days. His mania has intensified, and I don’t feel safe unless he’s permanently incarcerated in the padded cell. Though ‘safety’ when you’re trapped alone in a medical trials facility (which, technically at least, you still work in) with no one but a hysterical psycho for company is somewhat relative, especially when you have no idea why either of these facts are so.
I reach the end of the corridor. This door is bigger than the others. It’s painted white like the rest of the room, but silver rivets on the frame are exposed, and the steel is ice cold to the touch beneath its gloss. I make myself known to L by opening a small sliding panel at head height, and the screaming stops instantly. The familiar scene plays out. I tell him to stay calm, come to the door, hold his forearm up to the open panel, and not move when I inject the sedative into his wrist. As per usual, L does as told, despite him not having a tangible incentive to do so. He murmurs as I tap his veins and slide the needle into his skin. He doesn’t even flinch. It takes mere seconds for him to lose rigidity, and he slumps to the ground against the door.
And then, something different – words form in the midst of his babble.
“You lied… this is all because you lied.”
The words endure like toothache, especially given the absolute silence of the laboratory. For long junctures I forget that sound itself exists, and the clink of glass vials and flasks crash like thunder through the void, shaking me from semi-consciousness. My experiments look impressive. Convoluted arrays of intricate glass and translucent liquids weave and drip and titrate on the tubes with expert sophistication… But my concentration keeps lapsing, and I shake from bouts of mental stasis to find myself completely unaware of what I’m doing. The clear, anonymous chemicals are suddenly meaningless, and I have to pour everything away and start again, but I’m never able to focus for long enough to achieve anything so everything gets poured away again and these wasteful cycles persist for hour upon lonely fucking hour…
6:42. Screams. Get up. Needle. Sedative.
It’s the third consecutive day that L has said this. I can’t think what I could have possibly ‘lied’ about that would have landed me in my present situation. I look down. L is inconspicuous in appearance (save for the fact that he’s lying unconscious in a padded cell in a white hospital gown) – late thirties, short brown hair streaked with a grey appropriate for his age. ‘Mentalist’ is hardly tattooed on his forehead. I notice that, despite the passage of time, he is clean-shaven. I uncomfortably ignore the possibility of him having access to a razor.
I’m fully aware of the ethical quagmire I’m trapped in, and yes – I worry to an inconsolable degree that whatever normal life L led before coming to this place is now behind him. Permanently. Medical trials rarely produce adverse reactions as extreme as those observed in his case, and, frankly, I have no idea how to undo the damage. The whole situation tears at my morality – is the loss of L’s life worth the lives of the hundreds of thousands that would otherwise be lost to such a prevalent disease? What about when his suffering doesn’t even result in actual medical progress? I try to remain detached. I have to. If I allow myself to feel guilt, then it will crush me. One day though, just one day, I want to wake up, for him to be not screaming, and for him to be sitting upright in his cell, lucid and of sound mind, ready to go home. How I wish he’d been in the control group that were merely administered with placebos…
There’s a single, solitary window in the whole facility. It stretches along almost the entire length of the wall into which it is set. I try to avoid looking through it – the panorama on the other side is far too beautiful for the eyes of a body that can’t leave the building. Today, however, I’m drawn in, unable to resist staring. I can see the edge of woodland that the facility is apparently built next to. The dense trees aren’t especially inviting, but there’s an unspoilt agricultural purity about them that appeals, like summer days spent with sisters, running care free, tripping over bracken… Beyond the border of the woods lie rolling fields of immaculate emerald green, blades swaying in tempting breeze. And then, there’s clean blue seawater, reflecting perfect azure skies, probably no more than a hundred metres away from where I’m stood, foamy white flecks, the crests of a hundred distant swells… I feel the lump grow, awkward in my throat, my head taps, rapping against the pane with increasing intensity, eyes water, air escapes my mouth as a howl, hammering fists and foreheads, crimson mist, scraping nails, biting glass, broken fingers, broken teeth, red trails branch, turn the fields to flames, the seawater puce… what the fuck is happening? What have they done to me? Why won’t they let me out? WHY WON’T THEY LET M-
6:42am. Screams. Swing out of bed. Bruised hands fumble glass vials. I’m stumbling through the laboratory, clumsy. My eyes are caught… the wall’s brilliant white is disturbed to my right.
The unused patient’s bedroom door sits ajar.
I know that I didn’t open it.
No one is screaming.
I stop breathing, and set the sedative and needle down on the floor against the wall with absolute care. I tread, ever so slowly, and gradually push the door open… open… open… Leaving my body protected behind the wood, I inch my head around the door’s edge, until I see inside… The room is empty. I check that the corridor behind me is clear in both directions before moving inside. Although devoid of human life, the room isn’t how I left it. A hooded top lies crumpled atop the bare mattress, grey with the red heart printed on the sleeve. I pick it up. It’s dreadfully familiar… It’s mine. The sweet, stale perfume on the neckline proves this beyond doubt. But it shouldn’t be here. It should be in my wardrobe at home… I put it on over my blue scrubs and white lab coat, the familiar scent comforting. If only for a second. I catch my reflection in the mirror in the opposite corner of the room. My muscles clench, the sight that greets me is completely jarring. The episode with the window’s left me dreadfully injured – with my forehead all yellows and reds blending through to blues and purples around my eyes. Any hint of femininity has been completely beaten out of me. I barely look alive. I glance down into the sink and I’m affronted again. The bleached white bowl is stained with a brown residue. My medical experience tells me that this was once blood. And trapped in the plughole, fistfuls of hair. Long blonde hair. My hair. I finger the damp, matted tangle, and an acrid scrape reveals the presence of something hard amongst the coarse, knotted strands. Like fingernails down a blackboard… Teeth against porcelain… Whole teeth – roots and all. I recoil, my lips sealed so tightly – those teeth… can’t be mine? I see myself shake as I dare myself to look beyond the thin black line that my mouth has formed… My tongue feels for bone… My shoulders are heaving. I tease my lips open… open… open… The pitch-black gaps behind them make me baulk and I trip over my own ankles and stumble to the floor.
I look up. I hadn’t noticed him come in. L stands over me, and stares me into paralysis. His anguish is palpable. In one hand he holds a vial, in the other, a hypodermic needle.
“This is all because you lied.”
I try to respond, but something sticks in my throat and prevents the formation of words. L treads a firm foot on my collarbones, pinning me down. My crying eyes plead in my voice’s absence. “Just because it’s legal, do you think that makes it okay?” Of course not – I want to say, as the integrity of my profession is pressed firmly onto my chest. L’s voice is laced with instability as he stabs the needle through the metal cap of the vial. I’m about ready to pass out from sheer terror, let alone the suffocation I suffer as he applies downward pressure onto me. He carries on talking. “Chemistry and biology don’t care for legality! You’ve put us both in this bloody mess!” L pulls up the plunger of the syringe with his thumb and forefinger and he depresses it slightly, squirting a trace amount of the viscous fluid through the needle’s tip. I see it splash on my top. I’m quite sure that the rest is about to go in my neck. I feel ribs fracture. I can’t breathe. I try to scream with every shred of draining valour, but nothing more than a cracking whimper emits. L brandishes the needle. I don’t remember what my mother looks like… My diaphragm desperately tries to draw air, but the pressure of his foot is too great and I begin to spasm death throes.
I pass out.
The weight lifts.
The beep wakes me. The tone repeats with metronomic regularity, perhaps once a second. It’s complimented by the sound of a ventilator, the exaggerated respiration out of sync with the heart rate monitor. It takes a few seconds for the pain to wash over me – but when it does my whole body suffers an ache as if I’m hung over from drinking pure poison. I force my eyes open and my pupils take time to dilate. I find myself lying in a bed that isn’t my own… The first things that I see are the wires and pipes trailing from the medical machinery sitting on wheels next to the bed. I realise that I’m in the facility’s patient bedroom. Urgency infuses my blood – I have to get out of here, and fast. I instinctively pull the endotracheal tube from my throat, an action that makes me gag and even vomit, though nothing actually comes up. Equilibrium disturbed, the machine’s beeping becomes erratic. It blares with a piercing tenacity. There’s no way he’s not going to hear this. I start to unplug myself from the machine, sliding needles from skin with sickening stings, unclipping tubes and probes from damn near every part of my body… But I’m not fast enough. He opens the door… yet, somehow, I’m not scared, his face veritably lights up when he sees me.
“Lauren! You’re awake!”
Lauren… my name’s Lauren… And then a noise that I haven’t heard in months – voices, a subdued chattering in the near distance, though the words are as foreign as some exotic language.
Everything is slowly coming back to me. I begin to cry.
Dr Ellis lies me down.
I’ve been recovering in bed for the last three days. My hoodie with the heart on its sleeve hasn’t left my body since I woke up, and its stale perfume has been usurped by the scent of pure me. Dr Ellis sits at my bedside and struggles to pronounce a chemical’s name.
“…More commonly known as HU-201,” he continues, ultimately defeated by the sheer complexity of its official nomenclature, “A legal high. And because it’s legal, we don’t test for it. But chemistry and biology don’t care for legality… That’s why we ask subjects if they’ve taken any substance that could possibly react with the treatment we’re testing. You said no. You lied.”
Of course, I know all of this already.
“Twelve hours into your treatment, something happened that I’d never seen” He doesn’t need to describe the episode. I know it all already… the screaming… the fistfuls of long blonde hair… He points over to the sink on the other side of the room. “You hit your head as you went down.” He gives me a small, round-faced watch that he produces from a pocket, “And you broke this…” The cracks in the glass trap the hands in a fixed position, with the hour hand approaching 7, and the minute hand half way between the 8 and the 9. “You fell into a coma… for twelve months. I thought you were gone forever. It was only in the last few days that we identified the HU-201 in your blood, and we were able to bring you back…”
Twelve months… I was gone for twelve months…
Dr Ellis goes on to tell me that the experimental compounds he synthesised to ‘bring me back’ are themselves going to be tested as potential treatments for the original condition that they were trying to cure. I ask myself, is the loss of twelve months of my life worth the lives of the hundreds of thousands that would otherwise be lost to such a prevalent disease? I feel selfish for not being able to answer with an immediate ‘yes’. Dr Ellis then goes on to buy my silence. The price of a year of my life is surprisingly negotiable. The agreed amount is life changing, though, of course, it isn’t nearly enough. The facility has a whole department dedicated to fabricating elaborate alibis, so no one will ever know what I went through. And, assuming that this is common practice, I think about all of the lost years that pass without record, never to be spoken of again. All that matters to me now, though, is that I’ve woken up. I’m not screaming. I’m sitting upright, lucid and of sound mind. I’m ready to go home… How I wish I’d have been in the control group that were merely administered with placebos…