Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Dr. Nelson wanted me to feel something. In the palm of his hand was a pale yellow mound of powder. He proposed to puff this powder, with his medical straw, into my face. A precisely regulated expulsion of air, he called it. To exhale just so until I was caked in it.
“Just take it passively, if you would, Lucy,” Dr. Nelson said. “Relax your face. If possible, relax your head.”
“You take it passively.” I was so not in the mood. I pictured him shamed by animals, dogs with pants at their knees lining up to defile him.
“Too late for me, I’m sure,” Dr. Nelson said, touching his face as if he’d just discovered it. “I’ve had my hand in the cookie jar so much on this one that I can’t feel the effects anymore. I can’t feel anything, really. I need more subjects.”
So do we all, I thought, but tough luck and boo-hoo.
Dr. Nelson was speaking in a high, shitbird whisper, but no one in the office bothered to look. Because ho-hum. Because who really cared? If a so-called scientist hadn’t approached you directly at your cubicle for a turn on his chemical merry-go-round, you kept your head down. Otherwise we were just too used to these eureka freaks sprinting through our wing, spritzing us with boutique medicines. Dr. Nelson was just another white coat haunting the office, with scarcely a body beneath. I called him Half Nelson, because he lacked a badge, had no ID, and worked so far off-book that he hardly seemed to exist. Just a little boy in a sweater, with a huge, grotesque brain pulsing behind his dear, dear face.
“Are you ready, Lucy? Sweetheart?” He brought the straw to his lips, poised to administer a puffback.
I wasn’t ready, not really.
“There’s not a pill or just, maybe, a lotion?” I asked. I so preferred the cold lotion they’d been deploying recently in the drug trials. Cold lotion was better than human touch by a pretty far cry. A kind of finer boyfriend. With one of these newer lotions, applied just so, I could see myself living alone, feeling loved, feeling complete, in the mountains somewhere, very far from here.
“Nope, there is not,” he said, speaking around the straw. “And now I’m going to count to three.”
I closed my eyes and relaxed as the sandstorm hit, jagged crumbs pelting my face. Holy holy holy it hurt. Some of it went up my nose. It smelled of flowers, but the sweetness turned rancid and started to burn inside my face. It was like I was smelling myself get cooked.
“Jesus, was there glass in that? Did you just fucking spray glass on me?” I groped for my water.
“Hardly,” Dr. Nelson mumbled. He always seemed surprised to find that his subjects weren’t corpses. That they could speak or shout. He wiped his mouth. “That’s just the coarseness of the grit, so that it doesn’t spike too soon on you and blow out your levels. We ground it at 41 on the, uh.” And here he whispered something in German. I think. His speech sounded laced with ancient obscenities. He made a gesture to indicate a large machine, pointing to a room down the hall I had no clearance for. I knew the door that led there. It had no handle. It had no code box. No retina thing, either. It was just a slightly cleaner slab of Sheetrock. But what wasn’t, when you thought about it.
Dr. Nelson had a big smile on his face. A shit-eating scientist smile. Whatever he blew into me didn’t seem to have much of an opening act. I wasn’t seizing, and I wasn’t writhing on the ground in some kind of unbearable euphoria. My levels, whatever that meant, were pretty much unblown. I felt the same as always. The same, the same, the same. Fuck it all.
I picked some crumbs out of my hair. They were moist, like bread chewed by a baby. “You’re such an asshole, Nelson. That was like the least professional medical trial I’ve ever been a part of. You don’t just. That’s not how. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
“It’s not a trial, Lucy, and this isn’t really happening,” he said. “You were just sitting at your desk when you felt a breeze. Maybe there was dust in it. It could have been anything. It was anything.”
Good grief, the caution we endured. It was hard not to read it as extreme self-importance. Did anyone anywhere, in the entire world, have a hard-on for corporate espionage when it came to our doomed and mildly illegal experiments?
“Right, of course, right. I just mean that you have no idea what dosage you gave me.”
Nelson had his little phone out, which looked like a soft, baby bird, and was already lost in numbers. “I don’t want to argue,” he said without looking up, stroking the swollen body of his phone with a finger. “Mostly because you’re wrong and it would be boring and exhausting to explain why. But I know the dosage down to the milligram. The puffback is actually a precise delivery system, and that’s the go-to-market play, anyway.”
Dr. Nelson turned theatrically covert. He shaded his mouth with a hand as if he had a secret that people might lip-read from the surveillance cameras. “Ah-choo,” he whispered.
“Uh, bless you?” For like the fakest sneeze ever?
“No,” he said. “Jesus. I mean the sneeze. That’s the delivery system. This drug will be delivered via sneeze. Or maybe a yawn. Something that one person does to another. Because, well. Beyond that I can’t say. You can probably figure out the rest.”
Right. I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I absolutely couldn’t figure out the rest. The rest was an unwritten world I was not invited to. I was too far down the chain in this puzzle, another mule without the code. Whatever. It hardly mattered. I was talking to a ghost.
“So what will I be feeling?” I asked, and I must have sounded too eager. Mommy just wants new feelings. Please, please, make Mommy feel something.
“Probably we don’t want to give you any help with that. Don’t want to game the books or whatever they say.”
“They don’t say that. That’s not a saying. Cook the books, game the system, queer the pitch. Anyway, are you that insecure about your work that you can’t tell me anything about it?”
He just blinked.
“Medical pathway? Part of brain targeted? Side effects? Give me some crumbs so I can at least make a goddamn biscuit.”
I knew his rules. I knew his life. It was pointless to ask. The secrecy was so bone deep here at Thompson that a false narrative of this bit of medical terrorism, him standing at my desk blowing powder over my head, had already been scripted. The dailies, when they came in, would reflect a different scenario entirely, one in which I had not been medically sneezed on by a hulking gray skeleton. Dr. Nelson looked like he didn’t eat, and didn’t sleep, and didn’t really breathe. So much abstention. What, really, was there left to erase except the idea of the man?
“How about you just tell me what you feel whenever you have a minute. Use the logger on the …” He pointed at my terminal. “I added an identity for you.”
He told me the name of the experiment. It had the word “bear” in it. It had a longish number, with some letters, too, and I instantly forgot it. He told me the name I’d be logging in with: Terry Corbin. For the purposes of the experiment I was a fifty-three-year-old woman, with no medical issues, and a family history of depression. Not so far from the truth. He told me that my fictional background was necessarily scattershot, because he didn’t have time to flesh out a real and believable past for me. Because why bother, and bleh, and gross?
“The system requires medical subjects to have a past, as such, but that level of information has no technical bearing.”
I blinked at him. When the scientists spoke that way I tended to turn to ash.
“The past isn’t interesting. It doesn’t matter. Sentimental value only, if that. Legacy software demands it and we comply, but we phone it in and that’s been approved all the way at the top. We’re not going to make a fetish out of stuff that has already happened. I sort of actually hate the past.”
Like he hated the past on principle, or certain specific things that had happened in the past? And did he hate his own past, which would be understandable—I imagine he was a small, unnoticed figure in his childhood, perhaps frequently set upon by larger children who tried to drink from his body—or was it the past of the entire world that troubled him?
“Thanks for the sexless name,” I said. “And the age. Nice. I can practically smell my coffin.”
We did this sometimes. We took on guinea personas for Nelson and his crowd before we romanced the FDA with our product. How did we put it when we congratulated ourselves about the work we did? We inhabited nascent identities to spread the data to a broader population. Maybe this was deceitful but it felt scarcely more problematic than using a real person. Scarcely. Crowdsourcing worked really well when you could handpick your crowd and rename them at will. You know, like drafting a football team or casting extras in a gladiator scene. It also saved some pennies on testing and it gave all of us in data collection a chance to sample how people would be feeling in the future, if any of this ever, ever, was approved and came to market. Yeah, if. And if and if and if. It was the unspoken word before a good deal of the sentences we punted at each other. And it was usually the last word, too. Along with many of the words in between.
The burning eased off in my nose and I’d shaken the crumbs free. I still felt nothing from the dose. No rush, no sudden clarity, no blast of sorrow. I was not high and I was not sleepy and I had not been put on some teetering edge that could only be soothed with sex or violence or kindness, which was good, because I wasn’t sure what the likely outlets were. This chemical friend looked like a quiet actor. Maybe an out-of-work one. The subtler drugs were always harder to bear, ha ha, because they triggered a bottomless disappointment. In me, anyway. Which I was arguably on the verge of feeling anyway, and who wanted a spotlight on the real. Ever. At times like this I realized how much I wanted out of myself, how blitzed and bored I was by my own thoughts and feelings, my own little story. Terry Corbin could have licked me into some new, intriguing shape, but she was turning out to be a fucking dud with limited powers of rescue. I kind of hated her already.
The other option was a placebo. It could always be that. Maybe it always was. In which case I’d just been sneezed on by a creepy man for nothing.
Just then there was an intercom announcement. Possibly in French. I looked at my coworkers, who all groaned at once. People reached for their coats. A crowd started to gather at the window.
I had questions, even though my heart wasn’t in it. My heart wasn’t really anywhere.
“What’s the time frame on this, or whatever? What’s the onset and then how long will this shit last?”
Dr. Nelson looked at his watch. “Yeah, uh. Onset is, you know … now.” He looked at me and blinked. Still nothing on my end, although I hated evaluating my feelings. It was like looking into an empty room, trying to see if the walls were breathing. Sometimes when I scrubbed in as a monkey for these experiments I was already shaking with the blast of the initial dose by now, quivering under my desk, running for the toilet. For some reason, experimental medicine often led to a thunderous shit. Today was different. This drug might as well have been called Status Quo. Who was going to pay for more of the same?
“As far as duration, this one might be pretty long term. We’re working on something sustained, and, uh.”
“Pretty much. That’s how we refer to it. It’s one of the words we’re comfortable with. But I’m not going to get too involved with language right now. The language for this experience will come last.” For some reason Dr. Nelson gestured out the window, as if that was where the language would be coming from. I looked in that direction, right into the sun, and for a moment forgot myself, who I was, where I was, what I was doing. Jesus it felt good.
“So this will last a full day? Two?”
Nelson just stared at me. I was playing cat and mouse with a dead man. Both of us were dead, maybe. Which explained the lack of repartee.
“Or what, like, a week? I should have probably asked you that. I have things to do at home. Stuff I have to take care of.”
There was, really, nothing of the sort. There was simply a man named Richard at home, my betrothed, and then the two children we had fashioned out of wedlock, using techniques we’d long since forgotten. These days I bent over a chair to receive his anxiety, but this happened merely monthly, and was marked by a great fatigue. The children walked the rooms of our home collecting food. Sometimes they left for long periods of time and returned home, silent and unchanged. They still called it school but Jesus Christ. When the kids slept I thought of examining them, but for what? From time to time I grabbed them and held them and sometimes they grabbed me and held me. I felt very little when I did this, so I did it more, and the children grew quieter and more remote, hanging from my arms like ornaments on a tree. You could almost hear a bell go off when we hugged, as if we were all good little subjects in the great experiment that was our family. You didn’t need special glasses to see where it was all going. You could watch a movie in which people like us were burned alive. We had just slightly more agency than stuffed animals. I’m sure there was more to it, but I didn’t know what it was.
Dr. Nelson touched my face. “Lucy, sweetheart.” He was one of those men who talked this way, applying human touch that felt both deeply inappropriate and entirely welcome. I allowed it, however cold his hand felt, however much I shivered. Maybe he could undress me. Maybe he could cut into me with a knife and it would seem like chivalry. I think I am only half kidding. There was a funny way that human law seemed kind of arbitrary when it came to the doctors on our wing. Human law, in the end, would have a short half-life—human law could seem so overwhelmingly polite sometimes. He was always kind enough, but in an overcompensated way, as if he’d just come from the killing floor somewhere up north, freshly showered, blood free for the first time in months. Whatever nice thing he did for you was out of guilt for something especially heinous he’d done literally seconds before. Sometimes in the break room we discussed the various doctors, and we had silent ways of singling out the creeps and corpses among them. The ones who were so recently dead that they twitched just enough to seem functional in the world, tripping and stumbling through rooms on their way to the burial pyre.
“It’s a moon shot,” Dr. Nelson said. “But we’re going really more sort of long term with this one. ‘Indefinitely’ is one of the words we might use. Maybe. We don’t know. I mean, we do know, but we also are not saying that we know.”
“So the dose of nonsense you just gave me, with mysterious effects that you won’t reveal, you’re hoping it will last, maybe, forever? That wasn’t worth mentioning, as a courtesy?”
Dr. Nelson smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said.
• • •
The full version of this story appears in the print edition of BOMB 144. To continue reading, pick up a copy at your local bookseller or subscribe here.
Ben Marcus’s collection Notes from the Fog will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in August. He is also the author of four books of fiction—The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, The Flame Alphabet, and Leaving the Sea. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Granta, Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, The Believer, the New York Times, and Tablet. He lives with his family in New York City, where he teaches at Columbia University.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.