25 Apr The Blind Experiment
“The Blind Experiment”Written by J.C. Barnard Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 36 minutes
I had rooted myself to the rickety wooden seat for the better half of the hour before I met the man who would make me unbearably rich. He trudged into the pub away from the sodden night’s air, his trenchcoat dripping with early autumn rain. He took off his hat and approached me at the far corner table. He asked me if I was the journalist he had contacted earlier that week. I said I was. He sat down opposite me, his gloves piled near my mug. I took a sip before he introduced himself as Dr. Alexander Drake, a medical professional working seven miles south of Canterbury.
“I suppose I should start from the beginning,” he said behind his disheveled mustache and sleepless eyelids. I ordered us two pints and he began his tale.
“I had a friend by the name of Felix Valentine. In the latter part of his life he had become a desperate fellow – desperate and in a financial trench. A trench, you see, that no amount of a hard day’s work could repair – and he was in considerable need of stability. He was in the worst state of his life, and yet, though he had no remaining coin left in his pocket at the end of the day, none to even feed himself, there was a certain peace knowing that there was no position lower than where he was. He was not yet so desperate as to throw his fragile life into the hands of madmen. Yet he still needed money, and quickly before the tax collectors came lurking around the corner of the New Year, and it was then that he decided to become a lab rat – a rodent to the men of science who could be so easily discarded. It was thus, on that fateful morn nearly a year ago, he had abandoned his home for good – although he had not known of that – and journeyed to my office.
“You see, Felix and I had been dear friends as far back as my memory allows. We would run around the streets of our childhood. We swam in the creek, played marbles and hoops, and we did whatever we desired around our quaint little town in the country. But alas, our friendship had been paused after our regular education ended, with me attending University in the fields of psychology and anatomy whilst he had pursued a career in real estate, which had ultimately fallen into bankruptcy in its second year and forced all of its workers to relocate or find another job. Several of his friends in the company had found work in another real estate business after the foreclosure, but they only took a small number of the workers. Felix was not among those fortunate few. With no employment, he had prowled the streets of Concord seeking any form of work. Having spent many a year barely able to support himself, he confided in me – myself, at the time, had just finished my studies at University – to help with his financial rut, and I had agreed to help an old friend. Thus I assisted in his finances for several years, I refuse to say I loaned him money; the implications of having a dead man owe me anything is truly haunting. After those years, it was apparent that lady luck was not kind to his employment pursuits. I had asked that he first find a suitable and permanent line of work before I assisted him any further. And so it was this reason that he had spent more years wandering in search of a steady job, finding no such luck. It was also this reason why he came to me, to be the ill-fated rat in my experiments in exchange for steady pay.
“There lay the Apex laboratory complex on the east side of town where I and my colleagues conducted our experiments and studies. The facility has been under new management recently, some rich philanthropist by the name of Nobel Shilling. You can find his name in the courthouse records; he changed the name to Apophis. Felix approached the complex, and as he entered he had requested the company of one Doctor Alexander Drake. I met my old friend minutes later. We talked for over an hour’s time, catching up on the events of our lives – although he admitted to me later that he thought my life far more interesting compared to his. He proposed his idea of seeking an occupation of assistance to me, but I had been extremely reluctant to his proposal.
“‘Felix,’ I had said, ‘if there were any way for you to seek work in this laboratory, it could only be done through years of laborious studies at the University. You would have to earn a degree in science before the company could consider accepting you as a working member in our field.’ I remember explaining this to him, and yet he was unwilling to surrender.
“‘My dear friend Alexander,’ I remember him saying, ‘years of higher education is not what I had intended. I have neither the time nor the patience for it, as you know I am a man who is quick to anger and of little self-restraint. Not to mention money would always be an issue. Could there be any other way to seek employment here?’
“I considered his question for a moment. ‘I could possibly have you employed as an experimental test subject. You would become a part of either the control group or the experimental group – and in some cases the placebo group – in our studies, but the experiments could be hazardous and filled with potential peril.’
“‘My body and health don’t matter to me anymore,’ I remember his somber face, a visage that will never leave my nightmares. ‘I have little left to lose.’
“With hesitation weighing down my blind judgment, I had him employed. I vouched for his position to the head of my department, and I believe he was allowed swift access solely due to my years of dedicated work. For weeks after, it was there in the laboratory where he lived, being tested upon for many hours of the day. Some experiments would require hardly a speck of effort on his part, but some would involve rigorous physical exertion, and he was oh so wearisome at the end of those days. However, he was yet to take part in his grandest and most dangerous experiment.
“It was during his eighth week of work whence I – having not seen him for weeks before nor had I not yet practiced my own experiments on him – came to Felix with an offer. I disclosed the parameters to him and he had told me that such an odd and fascinating thesis could be revolutionary. It was an unorthodox hypothesis, to be sure, and I don’t know what stirred my insatiable obsession for it, but I was uncharacteristically mesmerized by the idea. I then confessed that I had no test subject willing enough to be the experiment group, considering such extreme measures were involved. The humanitarian department had not even granted me a rat to test my hypothesis, finding it too cruel for any living creature. But a lab rat or a chimp was not what I needed, I required a human who could understand language acquisition and relay to me as many recordable observations as possible. In Felix’s eyes, for this information to be told to him directly by me, he assumed that I was proposing the role of test subject be thrust unto him. He had volunteered himself right there on the spot, much to my surprise – for I was not expecting him to be a volunteer. The reason for mentioning the hypothesis to him – which I never got a chance to let him know before he succumbed to his anguishes – was so that I could ask for his assistance in the experiment, not to be the subject.
I had fought and argued with him, using every reason for him not to be the one tested, but dear Felix had forever been such a stubborn character. I had found that no one within the laboratory – or perhaps anyone in Concord – was willing to take on such a burden. Perhaps it was this reason – or had I seen the pain already manifested behind his eyes, or was it some wicked twist of fate that compelled my decision? Whatever the reason was, I appointed him as my official test subject for that horrendous experiment.
“My hypothesis is simply put: if a man were to lose most, if not all, his five senses, he would be able to sense some manifestation of a higher plane. Call it God, an unseen sixth sense, or the void; he should be able to perceive something in light of absolute sensory deprivation. If such an individual could reach a heightened sense of ethereal understanding, he would be able to convey the eternal truths of existence. We could learn everything about the universe, religion; if there was an afterlife, the sky was the limit. To accomplish such a feat, I would have Mr. Valentine stripped of his senses one by one. We would operate openly on his brain for each step of the study. After each operation, he would be given adequate time to recover, both physically and mentally. During that period other doctors – who had agreed in assisting me in this experiment – would record everything about Mr. Valentine; his health, pulse, diet, exercise, emotions, even his dreams would be under close scrutiny. After enough time has passed, and when Mr. Valentine seemed back to full health, the next operation will take place and the cycle will repeat.
“A few days went by and I had offered dear Felix the choice of which sense he would have removed from his body. Perhaps the professionalism in my tone at the time had been enough to fray a few of his nerves. It was as if even I had forgotten my desperate attempts to dissuade him from the position of human lab rat. Or could it be that I had known he had nothing left to live for? The thought that he would willingly grant the fate of his life to the hands of the only person he trusted; had this numbed my perception?
“He had told me months later he wouldn’t have had anyone else but me by his side.
“You’ll have to pardon me. My emotional resolve is not what it used to be. Where was I in my somber tale? Yes! Ah, yes! I asked what sense he would have wanted to be removed first. He reflected upon my offer, for which sense could a man live without and still be well off? He made a list of the five senses, in order of which sense he could live easily without to senses he could not quite easily live without. His list was as follows: taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. He gave me the first item on the list. I had thought this to be quite clever, for the gustatory system does not fully operate with just the tongue, but rather goes hand in hand with the olfactory system. Simply put, if he were to lose the sensation of his tongue, he could still be able to appreciate taste, if only in a subdued manner through his nose. I had assured him we wouldn’t have to cut out his tongue to separate his body from its luxury of taste – that method would have been foolish and inefficient when we would ask him questions and expect clear, verbal responses. Instead, the operation would consist of a small team of nurses and surgeons, including myself, making a small incision in the parietal lobe where the body perceives taste. He was visibly relieved to hear this, and had told me he was prepared for the operation to commence when I was ready.
“I had had to permit myself some time to prepare the procedure. On the night before the operation, Felix was treated to a meal fit for a king in honor of what was to come the following morning. Four-course steak, lamb, pork, and chicken, French bread with exquisite cheese, a cornucopia of fruits, and a platter of fine chocolates. No other patient in the facility had ever been treated to such a grandiose display of scrumptious food and drink, the test subjects are usually kept on a bland diet of crackers, protein, fruits, vegetables, and water. He had eaten until the contents of his stomach could solve world hunger and he had slept wonderfully that night – slept better perhaps than any other night in his life. The worries of the operation table had not disturbed nor vexed his mind as he lay in his confined quarters – where he had been dwelling for the past two months – knowing that his life was in the hands of his dearest friend.
“I ask for his forgiveness every day since I’ve failed him.
“Felix’s operation occurred the following morning. He had been set upon an operating table, told to lay on his back and stay still. He was then given a small dose of chloroform, which was inhaled through the nasal cavity, and he was promptly unconscious. It is quite queer to be in an operation under sedatives, I would know for I have been in several due to my poor varicose veins. You cannot recall the things that happen when in an unconscious state or what is happening to your body. Time becomes irrelevant, and soon seems like only seconds have passed until you wake in a drunken state. I’ll save you the details of the operation, for I am sure you have no interest in the minutia of surgical procedures. When he awoke from the operation he found stitches in his scalp and a suture around his cranium. The latter was caked in dried blood around his entire skull, giving him the look of an angel with its halo wreathed in red. He had attempted to raise himself from the table, but it proved to be a futile effort due to his still sleeping legs. He wanted to learn the time of day, so he scanned the walls in the room, but found there to be no clock or any tool of time. There were no windows in the operating room, so he had had no hint whatsoever of the daylight outside. At length, a nurse had entered the room to check his vitals. He had asked her what the time was and she told him. He tried to remember the time the operation started only to discover he could not recall such a simple memory. Having attempted to remember such information, he had forgotten the nurse’s answer to his question. He asked again and the nurse – being extremely patient, may the Lord bless her soul – repeated her previous answer. He asked when the operation had started. She told him it occurred around nine o’clock that morning. Relieved to have numbers he could work with, he began to make a calculation of how long he had been under a sedative state, but such a simple mathematical task could not be executed. Being under anesthesia can muddle the brain in many ways, it is humorous what some patients say and do under such influence. Having no luck with his arithmetic after several failed attempts, he had forgotten again what time it was, and so asked again. The nurse sighed and answered his question for the third time.
“‘Mr. Valentine,’ said she of monumental patience and steadfast composure, ‘it is now one o’clock in the afternoon. You have been under sedatives for nearly four hours.’
“Thankful of her for doing the mental work for him, he tilted his heavy head to the side and fell asleep. He was roused later by the same nurse. She had told him that he had to move to his quarters so that the cleaning staff could sanitize the operating room. As she helped him to his feet and supported him out of the room, he had read a clock just above the door frame on the outside. It read a half-past one, meaning he had slept for a mere thirty minutes. His head had been swimming, and the nurse – may God bless her ‘til the end of time – helped balance him to his sleeping quarters in the east wing of the laboratory (the operating room was located in the west wing), where he was helped to his cot and then fell immediately back asleep.
“Several hours later I had entered his quarters and woke him from his slumber. It hurt me so to raise him from his world of dreams, for he looked so peaceful lying there on his small cot and I had not seen him in such a state of content in so long. Yet, I had my work to do with my personal test subject. I asked him how he was feeling and he replied that he had felt virtually no change in himself. I instructed him to follow me through the laboratory complex to a small room filled with other doctors and scientists, each having several sheets of notes, a large collection of pens, and other materials. He was seated in a plush chair in the middle of the room surrounded by these men of science and then asked an array of questions. As he answered each question with the utmost candor and respect for honest science, all the men in the room would jot down several things in their extensive notes. This procedure took place over the course of a few hours’ time and well into the night. By the time we were done, dear Felix had looked absolutely whipped from the episode and excused himself back to his quarters. I did not follow him there – trusting that he knew the way around the facility at that point – for I had much work to do with my notes and analysis. I will spare you the particulars of the study, for a journalist like you would undoubtedly have no interest in the field of theoretical science, unless I deem a certain detail to be of importance to my story. Instead, I will continue with my narrative of Felix and his actions throughout the experiment. Upon entering his quarters, he had found a tray of food and a canister of water waiting for him at the foot of his cot. The food tasted bland and the water felt refreshing and rejuvenating. As he had lain in his cot and started to drift to the world of sleep, he jolted from his half-conscious state in horror and epiphany. He had discovered why the food had tasted so bland and peculiar. He no longer had the sense of taste. The reality hit him on the top of his head where the stitches were still fresh in his scalp. He felt clammy and queasy; a flood of butterflies infested his stomach. He would never be able to taste again. He had lain there in his cot for hours in a shivering mess before sleep finally wormed its way into his body and he dreamed of a world filled with flat colors and drab features.
“The previous day’s procedures – minus the operation of course – had repeated themselves every day for several weeks until Felix had finally come to terms with his new reality and accepted his fate of never being able to taste again. He had realized a few weeks after the operation that this impression of loss is only the beginning. He would have to learn to cope with the change and the sensation of his missing sense over the following months.
“At length, his period of recovery had come to a close and the next operation had been scheduled to happen on the next day. I approached Felix and asked which of his senses were to be removed next. He recommended his sense of smell and I informed him that the operation would take place in the frontal lobe, near the Sylvian fissure, and the incision would be executed after we had removed the stitches above the parietal lobe where the previous operation took place. I then strode briskly away to prepare for the operation whilst he retired to his quarters, which I think now he took my sudden action with an air of slight offense. My encounters with Felix were slowly decreasing each week, and my time spent with my old friend had been designated primarily to verbal examination with the other doctors each night. I had to accept that my relationship with him was to be strictly professional. During his evening meal – his diet for the past several weeks consisted of nothing but bland oats and grits – he had been given the opportunity by some of my colleagues in the theoretical department to select a certain number of items that he could smell for the last time before the operation. He had politely turned down their offer, but thanked them kindly for their consideration. He had resigned to take his new predicament in stride, merely enjoying his life moment by moment as they came to pass.
“The operation came and went, the same table, the same sedative, the same drunken state, and the same procedure of questioning that followed afterward. Again, I shall decline to recount the details of the operation, for it was a particularly gruesome one to carry out, the human sense of smell is such a fragile thing, and I think it unnecessary for a man of your profession to dwell on the subject of experimental medical procedures. I will but only interpret what dear Felix must have been going through during the ordeal, for I can only guess. This is the point in my story where he becomes, how shall I say, more disturbed.
“It would feel quite uncomfortable for one to lose their sense of smell, I presume. Felix described the odd sensation once before he departed. He had said, to put the situation in context, that having no sense of smell is not entirely unlike smelling air, except for the fact that you would experience this every time you breathe sharply through your nose. I couldn’t imagine losing my own sense of smell. To forfeit the right to smell the sterile atmosphere of the laboratory halls, or the sting of bleach on medical instruments, or the glorious cafeteria food served daily to faculty members, that is an appalling thought and I can never forgive myself for thrusting a burden such as this on my dearest and closest friend, for if I hadn’t been so blind he’d be here today!
“Please excuse my outburst. The night’s air has given me a chill and the journey here has not been wholly pleasant on my conscience. Regardless, the following weeks had passed by in a blur. Minutes melded into hours and hours into days for Felix. His entire life had been transformed into a regimen, a never-ending routine. Get up. Eat. Answer questions. Sleep. Day after day after day. There is a certain madness to the philosophy of repetition. One could easily lose their sense of time, but then if time were a human sense, dearest Felix would have had three missing by then. I believe it was Mr. Einstein who had said ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ This fact had seemed to hold true for my friend and had thus become a part of his life, his well-being, and his very soul.
“His weeks of recovery had passed by and my hypothesis had yet to be proven true. As part of his daily ritual, Felix was required to meditate quietly in his quarters for a minimum of two hours. If we, the doctors and scientists who had awaited a satisfactory result from the study, expected such a poor soul to hear God, he may have been able to with time, although I suspected that he would most likely mistake God for the devil in his mind speaking to him.
“On the day before the third operation, I had entered his room and asked him for the sense he was willing to lose next. He had apparently been studying up a bit of anatomy in his time in the complex, and he explained to me that even though the pain of having his central sulcus severed could turn serious, he was nevertheless willing to have it happen in the operation. I had nodded slowly at his request, pridefully surprised at his interest in brain structure as a father would be proud of his son taking up music for the first time. I left abruptly. I had been increasingly absent from his presence for quite some time before seeing him that day, I was deeply involved in the study, but that wasn’t the only reason as to not be able to see my friend. I feared that I would see Felix slowly succumb to an antagonizing madness before my eyes if I were to meet with him more often. I had felt a deep form of remorse, knowing that I was the one behind his suffering for such a far-fetched hypothesis. I think he suspected this of me, for he was very expressive in his forgiving me the next day of my extended leave from him. It was on that same operating table that I had seen him twice before in which, before the sedatives were effectively administered to his person, he had told me that he did not hold an ounce of spite toward me or my work. He was neither angry nor begrudging toward me or the men who assisted me.
“I was thunderstruck by this comment, for dear Felix had always been a vengeful spirit by nature. He was characteristically quick to anger and held a grudge longer than he held the memory as to why he had first felt scorned. Back in the day, the children in the schoolyard gave him the sobriquet ‘Three-Licks Felix’, because if he had ever caught you with vengeance in his eyes, he’d grab the nearest stick and flog the poor lad three times or until he cried mercy. However, the vindictive face of Felix is not what I wish to remember him by. Rather it is the soft-spoken friend of my bosom that I want to picture in my mind’s eye.
“It is interesting how much you truly need any and every part of your body, and no one will realize this truth until they have lost that part of their body – momentarily or permanently. I can only imagine that it would be the same situation regarding the sense of touch. It would be an eternal numbness that courses through your entire body that never goes away. You would know that every part of your body is still intact and functioning to its fullest, through some form of proprioceptive sensation, yet you cannot feel it there. The wanting and the needing to feel something would be excruciatingly awful. You would never have wanted to feel a chill run down your spine in mortal terror so badly in your life. To feel anything – cold, hot, dampness, warmth, pain, anything – in this mortal world. To feel anything – I tell you, anything! – just the sense of something to be laid across your skin and the knowing of your place in this world. You would know that you belong in this world because you could feel the world, and the world could feel you.
“With the third operation, Felix had lost his sense of touch. He could no longer feel the world, but the world could feel him. I ask you then, would that mean that he no longer belonged to this world? Did he think he mattered in those dwindling dark days?
“By that time, his madness had reached the attention of most of the doctors in the laboratory, including myself, which had been the primary reason to call upon our head psychiatrist, Doctor Percy Jericho. Doctor Jericho is a well-known psychiatrist in all of New England, he had found the root causes for all his cases and had been able to cure all of his patients’ ails. Doctor Jericho had had Felix sit in a room filled with nothing but white color. It was his office in the lab complex, as I gather Felix had undoubtedly figured out sometime later, although it did not look like a standard doctor’s office. No pictures, paintings, no sign of showing that this man who had sat across from him and had vowed to help his woes was, in any evidence, a sympathetic human. I had been in his office only once in my years of working for the company, and even I could see the troubling quandary his patients may have dealt with while under the supervision of the Doctor. It is such a troubling circumstance to see a medical professional with limited emotions displayed in his own office. What does that say to the patient who is seeking to overcome an obstacle such as their mental health?
“The Doctor’s methods were unorthodox, as he was himself an unorthodox individual, in both senses of the term. He was a Lutheran, you see. But that’s not important. Having instead of he who asked the questions and Felix answer them, the Doctor had my friend ask the questions of his own life and he would answer. As my dearest friend asked question after question regarding the minutiae of his own life, the Doctor would give him vague answers – vague yet true answers. This odd method of therapy had perhaps affirmed Felix’s supposition – and mine as well – of the Doctor; this man was not human at all.
“Felix had described to me his first session with the Doctor much later, near the end of his time at the complex. He had said to me: ‘I asked him to reveal information about my life, information that I only knew mind you, there were things that I could only know! And yet – and yet he had exposed those sensitive details of my life with terrifying accuracy.’
“My friend had then leaned closer to my ear and whispered: ‘I think him to be some kind of demon, or better yet, some manifestation of my long descent into insanity. If it reveals to be the latter, I am pleased, for that would mean your safety would not be threatened in my stead.’
“Alas, the Doctor was not some demonic entity nor was he the machinations of a depraved psyche, he was but a man doing what he felt was best. I had talked briefly with him halfway through his therapy sessions with my friend and I had brought up the subject of his particularly unconventional method. He explained to me that he could figure out the answers to Felix’s questions by studying him alone in that room – how he had delivered the questions, what his facial features showed, the content of the questions themselves, every factor he had studied with a scrutinizing eye.
“This description did not comfort me, for it only begged me to ask him thusly, ‘How then, dear doctor, does this method of yours help the patient in their recovery?’
“His answer was not satisfactory: ‘How does it not? You see me as a villain, I can tell that by your composure. You have undoubtedly heard of my credibility in the field of psychiatry, I assure you they were not obtained by accident. What I do with my patients, whatever therapy I prescribe to them in my sessions or outside of them, is all necessary to their full recovery. Have you ever wondered why I’ve kept a perfect patient recovery record? This method of mine, as you deem it odd, I have used many times in the past on my first encounter with my patients. The purpose of this process is to help them reveal the deepest rooted problems in their lives. You see, I have tried the old Freudian practice, what with the red leather couch and limited eye contact with the patient, and I’ve found it to be only successful to a certain extent. The patient is apt to reveal only what they want to reveal to their doctor, they all hide their secrets within their hearts, some of them will carry heavy burdens such as these secrets to their grave. They are merely human, Doctor Drake. You have studied philosophy while at University, did you not Doctor? You have surely then studied the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, the existential French playwright and philosopher, have you not? You see, Sartre was deeply invested in the concept of ‘bad faith’, which, simply put, describes the phenomenon where human beings, under pressure from social forces, adopt false values and disown their innate freedom, hence embracing their own inauthenticity. By my design, my patients therefore create their own questions about their life. Thinking that I could never guess the legitimate answers, they will easily ask questions about their deepest, darkest secrets. And I, through elementary deduction, logic, and human reading, will guess correctly. This helps the patient come face to face with their authentic lives, as I give them no opportunity to offer an inauthentic version. I hold up a mirror to their innermost kept secrets. Whether it be lust, greed, shame, the interests of the self, I display these abominable traits of the human condition in their stead. We are thus acquainted with painful truths, so there would be nothing to hide from me in future sessions. If there is nothing to hide, we can then effectively come to a solution to their mental problems easily and quickly compared to what a normal psychiatrist could do. A normal psychiatrist could help an individual overcome anxiety in several months. I could do it in several days. This, my dear doctor, is how my methods help the patient recover.’
“Felix, upon my description of the conversation with the Doctor, was not pleased with his answer either, ‘His explanations only confuse me more, Alexander,’ he said. ‘This man did nothing but unsettle me to the very core the moment I laid eyes on him.’ He had bid me farewell and retired to his quarters.
“Shortly, the time had come for his fourth operation. The psychiatry sessions with Doctor Jericho had not improved his sanity or well-being one bit. Moreover, the answer to my hypothesis was far from being answered. Felix had requested for the following operation to take place in his temporal lobe, and so it had been decided that he would lose his hearing the next day. It had been offered to him, a few weeks prior and several days after the operation, that he learn and study sign language. He had declined, deciding to instead rely heavily on the old-fashioned pen and paper way of communication. However, it had been his wish to have my words be the last he would hear while on the operating table. I had agreed to this request and I spoke to him in length before giving him the sedative. He had been somber, to say the least, when he awoke from the operation sometime later. I imagine it to be a burden to realize that you cannot hear the world in front of you. The impenetrable silence drilling a hole in your head could be infuriating, I cannot understand how the deaf could possibly handle such a distressful ail. Ah, but perhaps I can infer how the deaf deal with it, for there is comfort in knowing that sound is magnified in vibrations, such as the beating of one’s heart. The soft thump-thump that reminds you that you are still human and alive. This is why I believe deaf people are not as mad as Felix had been, for he had no sense of touch. Alas, he could not even feel the beating of his heart.
“How tragic he must have felt, how utterly helpless he must have been in those last few weeks. I like to fancy that my last words to him on that damnable operating table would ring in his ears for a short while after he had woken up.
“I had talked to him that morning, per his request. I had said to him, ‘I didn’t want you to be the one to carry this burden, Felix. But you, Felix – stubborn, vindictive, dearest Felix – you would not listen. And now, terribly indeed, you will continue to not listen, but you will do it involuntarily; unlike this experiment. I only wish for the best of you, Felix, and may God help rest your soul.’
“He had replied before being sedated, he said, ‘God may help my soul, he may save it and bring it to his eternal kingdom, Alexander, but he will forbid me to hear from him in the meantime.’
“‘We have yet to see that, Felix,’ I had said in turn, ‘we have yet to see.’
“His sanity had seemed to be dropping by the minute. His daily sessions with Doctor Jericho – which at that point had become a part of his ritual – were not helping his mental health in the slightest. He dreaded every day he had to visit his office. He believed him to be abnormal, which I thought was unfair as I saw the Doctor as being strange, truly, but not as extreme as being deemed ‘abnormal’. He wanted nothing more to do with him. I think Felix was projecting his frustration on our head psychiatrist as well as other members of the facility, for he had become rash and unstable. He would shout at nurses, curse at doctors, insult scientists whenever he’d see them. I had been complained to on many occasions of his violent tendencies, as well as informed that he had been heard multiple times crying in his quarters while he slept. I had been informed even more that he laughed while he slept. His appetite had dwindled, and his breath had devolved into ragged and rapid fluctuations of the diaphragm. His heart rate and blood pressure had both doubled since he had started working in the laboratory, and his other vitals showed no signs of improvement.
“He was on the brink of breaking. His poor soul was ready to shatter in front of the entire complex at any moment. At length, his sessions with Doctor Jericho had ceased, for even the Doctor admitted that curing him of his mental issues was a bygone goal. He said my friend was finally past the point of no return. I had asked him what he meant by this, the Doctor, usually an over-talkative ‘holier-than-thou’ individual in the medical field, had merely shaken his head.
The daily physical and verbal examinations with the other doctors, – or as Felix had started calling them, ‘interrogations’, for that was undoubtedly what they had felt like to him – had also ceased in the general interest of all parties involved, for Felix had not been better to my colleagues than he had been to everyone else in the company. As a matter of fact, his whole daily ritual had been virtually thrown out the window. It was apparent that his irrationality had been tolerated for too long, and the doctors and scientists had had enough of it. The only activity of his previous regimen that did not change was his mediation in order to encounter an unseen plane, which he now had ample time to do. It was in his quarters where he would sit for hours at a time, listening, waiting – waiting for a sign, any sign that the experiment had not been for folly. He had no trouble listening – for what else was he able to listen to? – and yet there was still nothing.
“I would sometimes visit him in his room just to see him propped up on his cot meditating. He would not hear me enter, and I would sit with him for some time, but he wouldn’t open his eyes or acknowledge that I was there. So, mostly, I would leave him be. However, there was one time when I think the sickness in his mind had finally taken over like concrete settling in the sidewalk.
“I was hurrying through the east wing toward a meeting when I heard a loud languid shriek of mortal terror, the kind of shriek reserved for dying prey. I rushed to where the shout emanated from and I prayed I would not find what I was expecting, and yet I came across the door to Felix’s room, where the noise had undoubtedly been conjured. I hardly recall even opening the door – let alone grasping the knob and lock – before observing the distressful state of poor Felix. He was lying on the cold floor, his hands clamped violently at his temples. His eyes were squeezed closed and his screams punctured the sour air. I shook him by the shoulders until he stopped writhing and fixed his eyes upon mine. I stole the pad and pen next to his desk. It was filled with mad ramblings, so I turned to a fresh page and wrote ‘What ails you, my friend?’ He read it several times with wild unfocused eyes.
“‘Help me, Alexander,’ he said, his warbled voice unable to enunciate words like they used to. ‘Some villains keep pounding on that wall.’ He pointed a bony finger to the wall opposite the door, where ghosts of scratch and teeth marks permeated the surface.
“I scribbled more on the pad. It said, ‘You must be mistaken. That wall leads nowhere but the outside.’
“‘All the more reason!’ he raved. ‘There is a gang of delinquents who will not allow me a morsel of respite nor peace. And they chant the same thing, Alexander. They chant ‘Three-Licks Felix, come out here and meet us! Three-Licks Felix, come out here and meet us!’ I’ve had no rest for the better part of three days!’
“I scrawled some more, ‘Have you so easily forgotten, dear Felix? Your room is on the second floor.’
“Some more days passed after that, I cannot remember how many. The weeks had started to meld together, merely marked by when the latest operation had taken place. Finally, the date for the fifth and final operation approached and soon arrived. This left me and my fellow doctors the unfortunate task of cutting into his occipital lobe, rendering Felix blind – a living vegetable. He had no more final requests, nothing he had wanted to see before he went back once more to that dreadful operating table. It was the night before the operation when I had observed a lunar calendar in one of my colleagues’ offices, and I had rushed to Felix’s quarters to give him the offer of seeing a full moon one last time. The weather had been perfect on that early June night, not a cloud in the sky over all of Concord. The stars had been out, and oh how wondrous they looked from the roof of the complex. I went to Felix, but he had been asleep on his cot when I entered. I wouldn’t have been able to stir him awake, he wouldn’t have had felt my touch, nor could I rouse him with my voice, he wouldn’t have heard me. He looked so pitiful and helpless in his position, curled up like a fetus in his mother’s womb. His covers were heavily upon him and, even though the summer night’s air was stifling in the laboratory – our air ducts were under maintenance – he did not care enough to take off his blankets. I placed a hand over his forehead, and oh how hot it had felt to the touch. He was burning up, but not with a fever as we found out that morning when we took his temperature. It was merely due to the hot atmosphere and the colossal weight of the blankets over his emaciated body. He didn’t care about the hot or cold in the world, he was numb to every element beyond what he could see with his eyes. I was deterred after seeing him forlorn in his position, so I left him there for one final night of peace and I enjoyed the moon’s radiance alone.
“The next day, I didn’t have the heart to tell him of the previous night. I simply gave him the sedative when he was prepared and proceeded with the final operation. His eyes had closed and I suppose I was the last thing he remembered seeing before plunging into eternal darkness.
“Two days later was the sixth, a Monday by my memory. Felix had been led back to his room shortly after the operation. He was still there. Felix was still ever so cognizant of his own presence because he had opened his eyes and moved them around in a vain attempt to see. He didn’t speak or call out my name. He just kept silent as he stumbled in our arms on the way back to his quarters. When we placed him on his cot, he had moved himself into a sitting position and there he had remained for over two full days, still as a tree. He had refused to move, speak, or even eat. He had to have been hungry. He had to have been thirsty. He had to have known he was dying, his body was assuredly giving up on him bit by bit, yet he did nothing but sit and stare blindly at his colorless wall.
“I wanted to tell him that I had given up on the experiment. After well over four and twenty hours had passed from the last operation, I had approached the head of my department – Doctor Franklin Dalton, head of theoretical physiology until later that year when he voluntarily resigned on my behalf – and informed him of the failure of my experiment. The personal attachment to the patient had, in hindsight, not benefited my study, for I was biased in how I perceived the data. In the medical field, you must occasionally force yourself to be the professional and stone-faced antithesis to a chronic patient. You must inform yourself as to what is best for the patient’s health and not what the patient thinks is best for them. I had failed Felix in both regards, for I did not refuse his attendance in the experiment as the fatal test subject nor did I take into account the magnitude of this experiment on his mental health. Had I seen the signs earlier, had I seen what this foolish study was doing to my poor dear friend, I would have stopped the experiment right away and preserved what was left of Felix. I could have taken care of his gaunt, lifeless body, let him into my own home and housed him for as long as he needed.
“But oh! – what a fool I was! Oh, poor, poor Felix. How could I ever repay the suffering you have endured? What if it had been me, you would have tended to me better than I to you. For as God as my witness, I would have surely taken your place now if only I could!
“My word, please excuse my outburst kind sir. I can see that you are writhing in your seat, for I have kept you here longer than I had planned. Forgive me, but my story is almost done and I would very much like for you to hear the end of it. Here, allow me to offer the next round on my tab – oh waitress! Good evening madam, yes kindly bring my friend and I one more round of ale if you would be so kind. Yes, indeed put it on my bill, I’ll pay for it promptly before I head for the door. Thank you so much. My, what a compassionate character she is. And we have already gone through four pints each of this invigorating brew, haven’t we! Dear me, she was looking at the two of us quite queer, perhaps that was why. Do stay for a little longer, my friend, for I am nearly finished with my tale. I see that your notebook there is spilling with words, for you’ve nearly run out of room from my sinister account! I expect a well-recounted article in the papers sometime in the future, good boy. I beseech you to do it as much justice as I have done for my friend this night. Oh! – and I do hope you will identify the source as ‘anonymous’, won’t you? Ah, yes, there’s a fine lad. You’ll be a tremendous journalist yet if you are so well versed in the honorable system of confidentiality. Aha! – and here comes our ale. Thank you, madam. Here, take this tenner for your troubles. That will be all, yes thank you kindly. Now then, allow me to complete my story.
“It was on that second day of his recovery whence I sat myself in Felix’s room. I was done with the experiment; I was dismissive of my work for the time being. Doctor Dalton had given me a week off with pay after the events of that day, and I had gladly, but morosely, accepted the vacation. But before then, before my life had finally shattered in that laboratory complex, I was seated across from Felix. His head was bowed, his eyes closed, his muscles were stiff and unmoving. I only knew he was alive by the way his chest rose and fell in deep, concentrated breaths. I was there for a few hours, just waiting for him to move or even acknowledge my presence. It is said that the human body technically has more than five senses. For instance, the sense of balance is perceived in the inner ear, so I suppose that was how Felix was able to sit as straight as a board for over two days and not fall over. Or the sense of proprioception – the sense of yourself occupying space. I think he could sense his movements thoroughly in his last trek from the operating room to his quarters. But what of the sense of presence? Have you ever felt the presence of someone enter your vicinity without you seeing them and then, without knowing how you go about it, turn and see the face of someone you know standing mere yards from your person? I suppose that Felix also had that sense still intact in his body, but he had made no attempt to let me know of his understanding that I was there.
“I sighed and got up for the door to head out. I needed space away from the haunting halls of the laboratory. A brisk walk near the creek running adjacent to the facility would have surely done my head some good, but I was stopped by a stirring behind me. It was Felix; he had raised his head and had opened his eyes to look straight at me. His eyes, once a brilliant shade of green, now clouded over with evidence of cataracts. The doctors had not known why he had suddenly developed the early stages of eye cataracts; the operation affected only his brain, nothing else. Perhaps it was an inherited genetic disorder that had unexpectedly appeared, or perhaps his slim diet. Whatever it was, no one in the laboratory could pinpoint the cause. But the cataracts made his irises look ethereal, as if he were an oracle in days of old, sent from the highest of heavens to provide prophecies to the world of men.
“He looked directly at me, without possibly knowing for certain that I was there in his absolute line of sight. And he… he spoke to me. And my God, how his words sent such a shiver down my back.
“‘Congratulations, Doctor,’ he had rasped, his dehydrated mouth agape in a grotesque smile, showing yellowed teeth and sickly gums. ‘Your experiment was a complete success.’
“I did not understand the words he had uttered, and he continued with little pause. ‘Alexander, I have heard God. I have spoken to God and he has spoken to me. My friend, I have heard the words of the Almighty being. I have heard God. And he has abandoned us all.’
“And with those few words, he had laid his head down on his cot and exhaled a horrible death rattle from the abyss of his body. He would never take in another breath in his forsaken lungs ever again.”
Doctor Drake paused extensively to finish his drink. Several empty mugs scattered the tabletop and he composed himself as I jotted down a handful of words into my notebook. The ghosts of crystalline tears were marked across his face, streaming down his eyes to his mustache.
“Felix Valentine died that day,” he corralled back the sobs building up within his bosom. “I don’t know what the doctors did with his body, whether they performed an autopsy on him, whether they cremated him, they refuse to tell me. They urged me quite heavily to take my vacation after the events and I was barred from entering the laboratory for nearly a month, even though I was officially on paid leave for a week in the records.
“Before I left for my… extensive leave of absence, I caught Doctor Jericho lurking outside my office. His presence did not bode well, for I considered anything tied to my failed experiment as a bad omen. I tried to slip out unnoticed, but nothing could escape those vulture eyes of his and he caught me before I could get away.
“‘I suppose you have some unanswered questions about your friend, doctor,’ he said.
“‘What more is there to ask?’ said I. ‘The experiment was nothing more than hopeless conjecture, and as a result, Felix died a needless death.’
“‘I’m not referring to the experiment itself,’ he said, ‘and I partially disagree with you, doctor. Felix did not die a needless death.’
“I shouted at him, ‘Do not speak his name, you scoundrel!’
“‘Patience, patience, dear me,’ he said. ‘I’d like to speak briefly with you about my sessions with Mr. Valentine. Permit me to speak my piece, won’t you?’
“‘Take care to not speak ill of the dead,’ I warned. ‘Stranger things have happened within these walls.’
“‘Duly noted,’ Dr. Jericho said. ‘You see, soon after his fourth operation, we had hit a plateau in our sessions some days before he and I stopped our regular meetings. I had figured out the source of the problem, but it was his refusal to acknowledge my conclusions that had led him down this dark path. The roots of his mental collapse stemmed from what he believed to be a bad lot in life. He believed to have been dealt an unfair hand, and these self-destructive tendencies at the end of the experiment were a result. Have you ever considered why he had been so adamant toward joining your monstrous experiment as the tragic lab rat, dear doctor?’
“‘Felix has always been a bull-headed man,’ I said, ‘he volunteered simply because he thought I was asking him to do so, but when I tried to correct him…’
“‘No,’ Dr. Jericho interrupted, ‘you are mistaken. That is the reason you have come up with of your own accord. In Felix’s eyes, this blind experiment was merely icing on top of the cake. Nay, it was the strawberry on top of the icing. He had led a life of misfortune where he had seen more than his fair share of failure and rejection. He had no living relatives, no wife to come home to, no house to even call a home, no children who loved him. All he had was you, and that was not much to begin with, now was it? How could you attempt to argue that this man had been living at all? He had become a husk, we do not know for how long, but nonetheless he had devolved into a shell of what once was a person. A person who had once had a reason to keep fighting and living, but no more. To Felix, your little experiment to find God was a scapegoat to lay all his misfortunes upon, so that he may march to the end of his pitiful life and look back knowing that his primary belief, the belief that life has been particularly inconsiderate of him, was justified.’
“I raged at the doctor, ‘You are speaking of delusions! Everyone holds an intrinsic force to live on, despite how terrible life may rear its ugly head at them. Do not speak of Felix as if you had known him years more than I.’
“‘Oh doctor,’ he sneered at me, ‘but I did know him better than you. Far better than you. I knew him better than he knew himself. Furthermore, if you believe he did not hold any disdain for you at the denouement of his life, then you are the delusional one.’
“That scoundrel of a psychiatrist started to walk off, before turning to me and saying, ‘By the by, dear doctor. For what it’s worth, I consider this case a draw. I found the source of the problem, yet my patient had the gall to refuse to face and overcome it. I did not fail Mr. Valentine; rather, he failed me. So I consider my perfect record to have stayed perfect in light of these events, if it’s all the same.’ Then he turned and walked out of my sight. I have never been the overly vengeful sort like Felix, but at that moment, I had never so wholeheartedly wished for someone to drop dead in front of me.
“It had become apparent that they, the administration of the company, have been particularly hush-hush about my experiment and the events that transpired under my supervision. I consider it nothing less than a miracle that I was allowed back into my department, although I know at the bottom of my heart that Doctor Dalton had taken the bullet for me with regards to management. He’s retired now, moved away while I was on vacation. I haven’t seen him since the day Felix passed.”
He checked his mug, only to find it empty save for the flat foam congealed at the bottom.
“The company,” he continued, “has kept me doing busy work over the past few months. I think they are keeping me away from the public eye. They wouldn’t want a bad image for their board of directors to fix in the future. They are also keeping me in order to someday seize from me the final moments of Felix’s life and what he had said to me in private in his room. I have been steadfast in my resolve and have told them nothing on that subject. I have taken upon myself to be the sole witness of Felix’s life and to testify appropriately the truth of his demise, for I had brought this horrible fate upon him.”
A darkness fluttered over his eyes like curtains being drawn in a dark manor. He visibly shuttered, not from the cold atmosphere of the pub, but almost as if he tried to steel himself for what he was about to say, failed, and then said it anyhow.
“You may think me a shallow man after hearing of my tale. Felix died nearly fourth months ago to the day, and yet I have chosen to play dumb all this time. I tell you truthfully, I am a bewildered man, for my reasons for coming forth vary widely. It is true that I wish to preserve the life of Felix and that by telling my testimony his image lives on past death, but I have other more selfish reasons. You must understand, kind sir, that I have been vexed with ceaseless nightmares. I have visions of dark-eyed children pounding against my bedroom window, demanding to know where ‘Three-Licks Felix’ has gone. Sometimes Felix is out there with them, staring at me with sickly gray eyes, not saying a word. The ordeal has taken its toll on me, and I am compelled to confess.”
The Doctor brushed aside the empty mugs in front of him and stole a wayward glance at the brimming pages in my notebook.
“Once this story gets out,” he whispered, as if he believed the walls to have ears, “all hell will break loose for the company. They will be investigated, audited, perhaps even shut down, and they will come looking for me. Oh yes, I am certain of that. They may come after you, although I doubt it, what with the whole whistleblower deal in journalism – freedom of the press and what-have-you. That is why I am no longer staying in Concord or anywhere east of Manchester, mind you. For my part, I plan to go north, or westward if the winter proves to be harsher than I imagine. I do hear Harrisburg is tolerable this time of year. Perhaps I’ll go there. But pray tell you won’t disclose my whereabouts to anyone else, would you sir?”
I replied in the negative to his query. He sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“That is very well then.”
He gathered his gloves and hat and coat. He stood up from his spot, complaining briefly of his varicose veins, and bid me farewell. He rumbled to the front counter, paid his bill, and retired from the pub into the harrowing October rain.
I never saw the Doctor after that. When I had written and published his story the following week, the Doctor’s predictions came true. The company he had worked for, Phinehas Laboratories stationed in east Concord, was under investigation for unlawful human trials and crimes against humanity. They were shut down a month later.
The board of directors had momentarily come after me for exposing their company, but their lawyers could ultimately do nothing as I and my publication crew were protected under our rights regarding freedom of the press, just as the Doctor had said. They then sought after Doctor Drake and where he must have gone. I granted them no information on his current location, pleading ignorance to their bombardments of harassments. It was the least I could do for the man who made my work an instant financial success.
The Doctor had done what he felt was right and he entrusted the story of his friend into my hands. I believe I did the story justice, for I composed nearly word for word what the Doctor had told me in confidence that night. Of course, I left out one particular detail of his story.
The Doctor was right. That little detail, “God has abandoned us all,” had also given me a shiver. I don’t know whether the poor man’s mental health was the cause of his final words or if he had truly seen a higher being in the last hours of his life. The latter is a far more frightening alternative, for it would presume his words to be true.
Some secrets, perhaps, are better left untold.
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