She hadn’t expected to enjoy dying so much.
Because of course she was dying, that car had practically run over her head, and even though she knew there were people (what people?) clustered around her bed (what bed?), they were irrelevant. They’d been there a long time (how long?) without interesting her. What did interest her was how good everything suddenly felt. They (who?) had kept that possibility from her before now! Well, what could you expect, people always tried to keep the good things for themselves. . . .
“No one tells you anything useful,” she muttered, and there was a stir among the people around the bed. A rustle, like wind in distant grass, or students taking their stupid notes at her carefully prepared lectures, writing down everything wrong. What had these fools thought they’d heard? “No nun sells you anything youthful”? “No pun spells anything suitable”?
No matter. What mattered was the drugs she had suddenly been given. Because of course it must be drugs, to help ease her dying. Such lovely drugs, both for the sensations they gave her now and for the dreamless forever sleep they would soon usher in. . . .
“She’s thrashing around!” the daughter said. “She’s in pain!”
“I don’t think so,” the daughter’s husband said. “Look, honey, she’s smiling!”
Dr. Turner frowned. Well, maybe the patient was smiling, but it was such a twisted smile you couldn’t be sure. Turner hadn’t wanted to do this in the first place. For five days he’d been arguing against the clinical trial, but that horrible new law, H-743A, left the decision to the family. If a patient shall be certified by three licensed medical practitioners to be beyond accepted aid, then so-called “last-ditch” medications under clinical trial may be administered at the request of court-verified health proxies that blah blah blah. Turner opposed experimentation on the helpless. He was suspicious of everyone’s motives: the drug companies, the researchers recording everything at the back of the room, the weepy families. No good could come of using poor—he had to glance at his notes for her name—Margaret Lannigan as a lab rat for some new brain drug that, like 90 percent of them, wouldn’t get FDA approval anyway.
Margaret drifted pleasantly. No lectures to prepare, no tests to grade with twisted parroting of her precise literary analyses . . . Students always got it wrong. “No gun kills you anything rueful.” Rather A.E. Housman, that . . . rose-lipt maidens and the athlete dying young . . .
“What do you know about guns?” Beth said. “Words are your weapons, not guns.”
Margaret shrieked and clawed at the air. “You’re dead!”
“And you’re not,” Beth said. “Yet.”
“She is in pain,” the daughter said. “Oh, stop the procedure!”
“It can’t be stopped,” Dr. Turner said sourly. The shunt had delivered the drug directly into the patient’s brain, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. He’d been right; this trial was a terrible mistake. He folded his arms, pursed his lips, and watched as the patient subsided, once more inert on the bed. What had they expected? People were idiots.
Beth stood at the end of Margaret’s bed—not on the floor but actually on the bed—in a long white nightgown. Her blond hair hung in two braids over her shoulders, framing her pretty, unlined face. In her hand she held a book covered in blue cloth, its end pages bright fake gold.
Margaret said, “I’m hallucinating.”
That was how Margaret knew it really was Beth. No hallucination of her own would ever say “You wish.” Nor “as if” nor “bummer” nor any of the other deplorable slang the students used to avoid actual thought. All of it was exactly the sloppy speech Beth would have employed if she hadn’t died in the era of “groovy” and “heavy, man,” both of which she actually had said.
“How . . . why . . .”
Beth leaped lightly to the floor. No thud. She walked to the head of Margaret’s bed, passing lightly through the vague, agitated people milling around there. She said, “Didn’t count on the afterlife, did you, Maggie?”
“Don’t call me Maggie,” Margaret said, without thinking, because it was what she’d always said to her sister when they were young.
“I don’t have to listen to you anymore,” Beth said. “I don’t have to be bullied by you, soured by you, laughed at by you. Do you remember this, Maggie?” She held out the blue book.
“Of course I remember,” Margaret snapped. Anger steadied her a little. “Your adolescent driveling.”
“So you told me when you swiped the book and read it. That poetry mattered to me. Why were you so nasty about it?”
“I was honest, not nasty. You never could take criticism.”
“I didn’t ask for it. Not from you.”
“Literature should be subjected to high standards.”
“Not the poetry of fourteen-year-old girls!”
“Even that,” Margaret said firmly. This was solid ground. She had taught fourteen-year-olds for forty years now at a prestigious private school. “It does children no good to be given false praise.”
“It does them no good to be subjected to sarcasm, either.”
Beth hadn’t been changed by wherever she’d been (where?) since her death from cancer at eighteen. Beth never would change. Dumb, romantic, trusting to a fault. She wearied Margaret, just as she always had. “I’d like you to go away now. I’d like to be left alone.”
“As if,” Beth said.
The patient had quieted. Her monitors hummed gently. Heart rate eighty-seven, blood pressure one-sixty over ninety, both predictable responses to trauma. Turner didn’t look at the brain-wave graphs. That was for the researchers who’d set up this travesty.
The daughter’s husband said, “Tell us again, doctor, what this drug does?”
Now there was a question! Turner couldn’t give the real answer, which was “Who the hell knows?” In his opinion—not that the FDA heeded it; he was only the primary physician on the patient’s case, after all—the family had no business even being here for the clinical trial. Law H-743A again.
He gave the accepted answer. “The usual pathways to arousal aren’t working in your mother-in-law’s brain. This drug acts on the deep brain to create an alternate means of arousal. If it succeeds, the patient will come out of her coma.”
“If?” the son-in-law said.
“If.” Almost he told them about Phineas Gage, but then decided against it. Always best to limit the supplemental knowledge you offered to families. It reduced the risk of malpractice suits later on.
Despite her words, Beth vanished. Well, she never had been reliable. Margaret closed her eyes, hoping for that lovely rush of sensation to return. It did not. Instead another young voice said, “Mrs. Lannigan.”
Coming toward her bed, pushing his way through the seething insubstantial people, was a young man who undoubtedly had been one of her students. They had a look, these prep school boys: perfect teeth, straightforward gaze, good manners, lacrosse sticks. Although this one carried a sheaf of papers. Margaret prided herself on never forgetting a name, and after a moment she had it: William Calabrese. Class of ’05.
“I’m not holding office hours now,” she said crisply.
“Are you dead, too?”
“Then please come see me during scheduled office hours.”
“I can’t. I’m not at Gladwell anymore.”
Then she remembered. Of course he wasn’t any longer at Gladwell. “You were expelled for cheating.”
“Plagiarism. And I didn’t do it.”
“Of course you did. You turned in a paper on the myth of Mithridates, and my TA found the paper for sale on the Internet.”
“No, he did not.” Calabrese stepped closer. “He found one with the same idea but not the same details. I came up with that idea on my own!”
“And did all the research, I suppose,” Margaret said witheringly. “You—a fifteen-year-old boy—not only related King Mithridates’s obsession with poison to events in his father’s and grandfather’s lives, but also included ‘plausible guesses’ at the molecules that supposedly let Mithridates slowly build up immunities to poison by ingesting tiny amounts every day.”
“Yes, I did! It really interested me! I was going to be a doctor!”
“Were you. And did you become one, or did shortcuts fail you in that, too?”
“I lost my scholarship to Gladwell and ended up at a public school, where the science courses were so poor I wasn’t prepared enough for college. Plus the expulsion was on my record. Did you know I was only at Gladwell because of the scholarship?”
“No.” That was not the kind of thing Margaret concerned herself with. Her business was teaching. She added, “The entire honor board voted on your expulsion, Mr. Calabrese. They agreed with me.”
“Few people dared disagree with you at that school. And the vote was close, four to three.”
She said sharply, “How do you know that?”
“I made it my business to find out. You ruined my life, Mrs. Lannigan, and—”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic. Really.” She closed her eyes, hoping the hallucination would go away. Evidently it did because his last words came to her faint and somehow blurry, as if they were seen as well as heard:
“Your fucking unfounded suspicions ruined my life.”
There was a stir at the back of the room, among the researchers studying their elaborate monitors. The family hadn’t noticed. Turner glanced at the EEG graph, but this was not his field and he couldn’t see anything overtly abnormal about the series of spiky lines. One of them said softly, “Heightened activity in the hippocampus.”
Turner’s eyebrows rose. He hadn’t realized the drug might affect the hippocampus, with its heavy involvement in memory. Had the researchers known?
Phineas Gage had kept his memory. After a three-foot iron rod had blown through his head during a blasting accident while constructing the Rutland & Burlington Railroad in 1848, no one had expected him to survive. But he had, despite losing a half-teacup of brain tissue.
The daughter’s husband said, “Look, her lips are moving a little. . . . She’s scowling.”
The daughter bit her lip. “Well, she always did.”
No more rush of good sensations. However, nothing painful, either. The Houseman poem about Mithridates drifted into her mind, undoubtedly due to the hallucination of young Calabrese. “Calabrese”—an Italian name, among the Carters and Guests and Burdens and VanLudens. Had he really been on full scholarship? “I tell the tale that I heard told/Mithridates, he died old.” That was because the king of Pontus took a sub-dose of poison every day, building up immunity, and so could not be poisoned by his enemies, wise old monarch . . .
“I’m sorry!” someone screeched.
Margaret peered through the crowd of restless and insubstantial shapes, which seemed to have increased in number. A middle-aged woman barreled toward the bed, shrieking. “I’m so sorry!”
She stood too close to Margaret’s head, a bunch of silver-wrapped flowers quivering in her hands. Tears streamed down her face. This was the type of woman that Margaret most disliked: overwrought, untidy, badly dressed, hair dyed brassy red. No self-respect. Who on earth was she?
“So, so sorry!”
“So you just made clear,” Margaret said in the dry, precise voice that could bring the most pedigreed parents to heel.
“I didn’t mean to do it!”
Do what? For a brief insane moment Margaret thought the woman had poisoned her (Mithridates, he died old. . . .) and that’s why she lay in this bed. But Margaret hadn’t been poisoned, she’d been . . . Now she had it.
“You were driving the car that ran over me.”
“Yes! And I’m so sorry!”
The accident, which until now had been hazy in her mind, grew suddenly clearer, brighter. Too bright, as if some switch in her brain flooded the memory with operating-room light. The blue Buick had driven around the corner, going too slow. Margaret, already a quarter of the way across the street, had stopped to glance at it with suspicion. Was the driver drunk? An idiot? What would she do next? You couldn’t trust the people allowed behind the wheel nowadays. . . . Margaret retreated back to the curb. But meanwhile the fool woman behind the wheel, probably assuming that Margaret would continue crossing the street, had swung her car closer to the curb to give Margaret time to leave the Buick’s lane. Margaret, seeing that, had corrected herself, stepping briskly forward; the Buick had also corrected. It was like those sidewalk encounters where people try to dodge around each other, both moving sideways in the same direction, and end up colliding, both with irritated smiles. Except that this collision was between a person and four thousand pounds of metal, happening in what Margaret remembered now as agonizingly slow motion.
If she hadn’t assumed that the driver was stupid or drunk . . .
Margaret demanded, “Are you dead, too?”
“No! I mean . . . a big car like that, it’s an Electra, my husband always chooses them because—”
“Were you drunk?”
“Of course not! Look, I brought you these.” She held out the bouquet. Pink carnations and white gardenias, as if for a prom. Margaret had never liked the lush, hectic scent of gardenias.
“Go away,” Margaret said, and closed her eyes. Her head hurt. If she hadn’t been so suspicious of the driver . . .
What if young Calabrese really had not plagiarized that paper?
The informed-consent release for the patient, signed by her daughter, had included pages and pages of possible side effects. They were, Turner thought sourly, a ridiculous joke. The brain was the last frontier; nobody knew how it worked, and nobody knew what side effects could come from enzymes injected into it. They would stimulate arousal, yes—or at least, they did so in mice and chimpanzees—but what cascades of neuro-reactions would they also set off? What was going on in this woman’s head?
Phineas Gage had spoken just a few minutes after his accident, had walked around, had not even experienced pain in his head.
The researchers in the back of the room muttered excitedly to each other: hippocampus, amygdalae, thalamus, new neural pathways. . . .
The daughter burst into tears.
And now Emily stood beside Margaret’s bed. Emily, who’d been such a disappointment all her life. Margaret had named her for the self-sufficient and musical Emily Dickinson, not for the current crop of flashy young movie actresses, and Emily had turned out to be . . . well, tinny. Like the sound of music played through cheap speakers: nothing wrong with the basic tune, but the result was thin and weak in the treble, and missing bass notes.
“I might have had those bass notes if you had let me grow up,” Emily said.
“What?” Margaret, outraged, tried to sit up. She failed.
“You didn’t, you know, Mummy. You always knew best, always dictated what I was supposed to do and be, which was exactly like you. But I wasn’t.”
Of course she wasn’t. From infancy Emily had been timid and pallid. Margaret had had to protect her from the world, a wearisome task she’d been secretly glad to turn over to her son-in-law when Emily, in the only act of defiance in her entire rabbity life, had run off and married him at nineteen.
“If you had only let me grow up, make some of my own decisions, not been so damn suspicious that I would fuck up—”
“Vulgarity only reveals your lack of vocabulary,” Margaret said, but all at once she wasn’t so sure. Had she refused to let Emily make any of her own decisions? Something was happening in Margaret’s head, something monstrous that she didn’t understand. These people, they were controlling her just as she’d always suspected they would—
“No!” she screamed. “I won’t! I will not!”
“Did she try to speak just then?” the daughter asked. “I thought she made a little noise!”
“Maybe she’s coming around,” said the son-in-law.
Dr. Turner moved toward the patient’s bed.
A researcher said, with awe, “Look at the spikes in frontal lobe pathways to the amygdala.”
The daughter said, “What’s an amygdala?”
Her husband answered. “I think it involves thinking. Making judgments, maybe? But I might be remembering wrong.”
He was remembering wrong, Dr. Turner thought. The frontal lobe made judgments. The amygdala governed fear, anger, and hostility. After the iron rod had destroyed much of Phineas Gage’s left frontal lobe, plus structures not identifiable to nineteenth-century medicine, his behavior had changed completely. His friends saw him as “no longer Gage.” Supposedly, he’d become fitful, obstinate, profane, incapable of holding a job.
Margaret refused to open her eyes. If she didn’t open her eyes, she wouldn’t have to see, not any of it.
“You can’t escape that way,” Beth said.
Margaret squeezed her eyes shut tighter.
“The light hurts, doesn’t it? But you can’t escape it, Maggie. Not me, or Emily, or that student, or the Buick driver.”
“I will, you know,” Beth said. “But you won’t. And now you see yourself, too.”
“‘Mithridates, he died old.’ You used to quote that at me, do you remember? But did Mithridates have any fun at all while he was alive? Always taking poison, always slightly ill from it, his stomach sour, his guts constipated. His face all pinched, trusting no one.”
“Leave me alone!”
“You will have to learn everything all over again, Maggie. You can do it.” Beth moved closer, and a moment later Margaret felt her sister’s kiss on her forehead.
It was the kiss that did it. Margaret screamed in fury, in frustration, in anger. Her whole body thrashed and flailed, which sent agonizing pain through her head and then through her right arm, which had struck the metal bed rail. She was being flayed alive, her skin stripped off her in layers, make it stop make it stop—
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