by Jason Anderson
Matt shouldered open the door and felt the cold metal through his shirt and his lab coat. The subject sat slouched in a chair in the middle of the room. Sonya was already there, perched on a stool off to the side. When she saw him enter she turned her head away and pulled her gray sweater tighter around her uniform.
He found another stool in the corner and rolled it underneath him, checking the sheaf of reports in his hand as he sat. The top page said this one’s name was “Benjamin.”
“Hi Ben,” he said, “I’m Dr. Sterling. How have you been feeling lately?” He cut his eyes toward Sonya, but she just kept looking at the subject.
“Better,” said Ben. He didn’t look at Matt either. His gaze floated out in front of him, just above the floor. “Better, lately.”
Matt flipped through the report pages. “Yeah, according to what I’m reading here, you’re showing some good results from the latest round of treatments. You eating ok?”
“Yeah, eating good. Y’know, I still have some timesh whrill I geb disoriented. Or, y’know confused. Y’know? But yeah ob glo avobs ng chalk that up to sleep problems. Y’know?”
Matt paused to try to process Ben’s sentence fragments. “Not sleeping?”
“Could be better.”
“Maybe we could help that with your dosage. Sonya, can you make a note to adjust Ben’s dosage for the next round?”
“I’ll do it,” said the back of Sonya’s head.
“Well.” Matt patted both of his knees with his hands. “Well, ok. I’ll check back again soon.” He stood and walked to the door. Over his shoulder he said to Sonya, “Oh, and let’s make sure he’s getting plenty of water.”
“Ok. Good. Well, then.” And he left.
It had been a mistake to tell Sonya how he felt, he realized now. She had been assigned to assist with the human trials of an antipsychotic, and from the first time they met, Matt couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
When he had walked past the nurse’s station and seen her working there, his mind was swamped by the idea that he had to break the tension with her at that moment. He slipped up behind her and whispered in her ear words of his feelings for her. Pretty eloquently, too, he thought. She turned her head slightly and said, “Thanks.”
The dirty blue glow of the streetlight outside bathed his bedroom as Matt lay awake after his shift. Sleep was hard to come by lately, so after a few weeks he just gave up on it. He stripped down to his boxers and laid on the bed for a few hours every night, just for the sake of tradition, but his conscious never unclenched for long enough to drift away.
He played back his interaction with every subject in his head over and over. Most of them involved Sonya too, so in his mind’s eye he and the subject were the size of children and she was a giant. She loomed over them while they talked, and their conversation sounded distant and garbled.
He didn’t remember when he first noticed the scars on his arm, in the crook of his elbow. He just saw them there one night, during his reminiscences. He didn’t know where they came from, so he just treated them like they’d always been there, which worried him less than any other option.
In another of the sterilely comfortable subject rooms, Matt sat talking with an older man whose name was listed on the report as “Saul.” His unshaven cheeks sagged off the sides of his skull, but he was wide-eyed and alert. His attention darted around the room like he was watching many different tennis matches simultaneously.
Sonya wasn’t with him this day, which filled him with relief and fear at the same time.
He didn’t wait to get the subject’s attention. “Can you tell me what year it is, Saul?”
Matt jotted a note on the report. “You seem really alert today, Saul. How have you been sleeping?”
“Oh, oh, oh. Oh! Wellll… I’veb beppah-pah-pah aroww heb gebit dray. Fine, fine.”
Matt paused to make sure he heard what he heard. He made a note. “Now, the medication that we’ve had you on — the injections — have you noticed any changes since we started? How’s your feeling of well-being?”
“Reb bebby. Reb reb reb.”
It had taken three nurses to hold Saul down for his first injection. Now here he was, and anyone watching from a distance would think they were conversing pleasantly. It was a vast improvement from trying to bite his own fingers off. He clearly even thought he was making sense.
Matt crossed his arms and watched Saul’s head bob and twist. He could feel the shape of the scars through his sleeve. He pushed up his lab coat and rolled up his shirt cuff past his elbow until he could see them.
“Hey, Saul,” he said, “what do you think these scars are?”
Saul stopped abruptly and leaned in close to Matt’s arm, examining the scars like a jeweler with a loupe. Then he lifted his face to Matt’s.
“Those are scars from shooting heroin, Matt” he said. Then he went back to watching tennis.
Matt finished the day recording all of his notes for the transcription service. He re-recorded a lot of them, telling himself he wanted to get it just right, but really he was trying to linger in the office until Sonya happened by.
When the sunlight turned purple he started to see night shift nurses in the hall. He decided the day was over and it was time to start looking for tomorrow. He left his tie and lab coat on the coat rack tried to open his office door, but the knob wouldn’t turn.
He stood there for several minutes working the knob back and forth — click-click, click-click, click-click — and only stopped when he realized his wrist was getting sore. Then he started alternately yanking the door and driving his shoulder into it, all while yelling to the people in the hall. “Hey! Somebody call maintenance to get this door open! It’s stuck! I’m stuck in here!”
No one responded to him. He stopped yelling hours later when his voice deteriorated into a croak and his throat wouldn’t stop burning. He wanted a drink of water and an aspirin and couldn’t find either, so he turned over everything in his office, swept off the contents of every shelf and dumped out every drawer. Nothing.
There was a gray pillow in the corner. Matt stripped to his boxers and laid down on it, on the floor, his chest heaving. His eyes watered, but he wasn’t sure why.
Late in the morning, the door opened and a man in a lab coat came in. “Why are you lying on the floor, Matt? Are you feeling ok?”
“I need water,” said Matt. His throat still burned.
“Water? Ok, we’ll get you some. Can you put your pajamas on? I’ve got a nurse coming to join us.”
Matt slipped on his pajamas and pulled a metal chair from the corner to the center of the sterile but comfortable room. He slouched into the chair and stared into the middle distance.
Sonya came in shortly thereafter, and she and the doctor sat on stools in front of him. He tried to make eye contact with her but she avoided it.
“Ok, Matt, how are you feeling since the latest round of injections?”
“I’m… I’m ok I think.”
“I’m hearing that you’ve had some incidents lately. Can you tell me about them?”
“I think I may be a doctor here, and I’m supposed to be treating you. Not the other way around.”
The doctor paused for a moment, his pen hovering over his clipboard. He looked sideways at Sonya. “Did you get that?”
“Not sure,” said Sonya.