Excerpt: Was It A Rat I Saw

CHAPTER 1

Excitation

“I saw a banana,” Tommy said with complete assurance.

“Great,” Dr. Clare Austen replied. “Now with your left hand, draw what you saw.”

A right hander, Tommy fumbled to get the pencil positioned in his left fingers. Clare studied his face as he commenced drawing. The right side of his face definitely looked worried. Did the left look a little smug? Falteringly, his left hand sketched a clock face.

“Well,” Tommy paused, then continued in a rush. “See like I told you before I can’t draw for shit especially with my left hand. Some banana, huh?” After two-point-something seconds of consternation, he tossed the pencil down. “I was confabulating again, wasn’t I? Or anyway the left side of my brain was -”

“Dammit Tommy, if you don’t stop reading the literature you’re going to make yourself absolutely useless to me.” Clare slouched deeper into her chair; the orange plastic creaked and sighed.

“I stopped when you told me to last time, I swear, that was a term I picked up before. Don’t fire me, I love being your victim.”

She resisted the urge to correct him. He was her subject, not her victim; and she couldn’t fire him, his participation in these experiments was voluntary. But if she said more, he would tease more. And he had to stop teasing. Even her current assistant – one of the dimmer bulbs – noticed an unclinical air in the lab when Tommy Dabrowski was the subject of Clare’s experiments.

Victim indeed. She studied his long bony frame that looked tense even in relaxation, the smooth pale skin that was whiter than the lab coat he insisted on donning, the cool gray eyes that were several shades darker than usual.

“What’s wrong?” she inquired.

“Why I read all those brain books. I just. Wanted to understand what was happening to me, for once. I didn’t think about how it might screw your research if I was too aware of what you were testing for.”

“I know. It’s okay, I think. Did reading the books help?”

“The more I read, the less it seems like anybody could explain anything about my brain or anybody else’s.”

“That about sums up the state of the research.”

“Anyway, in some ways it’s better not to know. Bad enough before when dzzz,” he pantomimed a body getting electrocuted. “Then when I start thinking about those guys who went in there and whap.” He motioned, his hand an ax aplitting a log. Or a skull. “But hey. At least I got to meet you, right?”

“Their eyes met. “Is that what your seizures felt like?” Clare asked softly. Many patients described their epilepsy in short circuit or electrocution terms. Sometimes she wondered if that was only because their doctors had. “They really felt electrical?”

Tommy’s most deadly smily flickered: he’d noticed her refusal to flirt back. But he let it go and replied, “Before I’d pass out, having a seizure felt like I was plugged in, all of  a sudden, not just electrically though. I can’t really explain it.”

A door slammed. They looked toward her office adjoining the lab. “Found one, Professor Austen!” Steve the lab assistant appeared, brandishing a lighting element for the tachistoscope, the special rearview projector Clare used in her experiments.

Clare and Tommy withdrew physical inches, emotional light years. “Way to go!” Tommy congratulated Steve, he of the too-beady eyes and too-full mustache.

“They need help upstairs. Hurry.” Steve ran out, then back to deposit the lighting element on the edge of a table. He was halfway out the door again before he realized the element had fallen to the floor. He took a step back.

“Just leave it, Steve.” Whatever was happening upstairs had undone his chronic phlegmatism and was thus worth a look, help needed or no. So she and Tommy followed Steve to the labs on the third floor, an area Clare usually tried to avoid.

In the stairwell, streaks of fresh blood made the tile steps slippery. There were thick red patches on the walls as if someone had ricocheted off them. Clare wondered whose blood was now oozing into the treads of her shoes. From the floor above, she heard yelling, pounding, cursing.

She exited the stairwell into one of her personal visions of hell. She was distantly aware of Steve and Tommy running ahead, Tommy returning to where she stood frozen, fighting the need to flee. Something bumped her foot. A black cat lay against her shoe, legs splayed, panting. Its head was shaved; wires dangled from electrodes implanted in its skull When Clare lifted the creature, it hissed unconvincingly. Murmuring comfort, stroking fur gently, Clare slept-walked forward into a disaster zone.

All down the long hallway, countless cats, guinea pigs, mice, rats, rabbits – full of implants, incisions, surgical alterations – were crawling, running, crouching in terror. Dozens of humans in lab coats dashed around, corralling the experimentees.

The lab was in ruins: overturned cages, shattered glass, scattered instruments. Pools of chemicals on the floor, blood swirling in interesting chaotic shapes. Apparently every lab on the floor was in similar shape. The stench of formaldehyde was almost as strong as the animals’ fear. In one corner, a rabbit huddled, taut, mouth open in a silent wail; silent because its vocal chords had been cut to curtail excess noise in the labs.

“…His arms were raw up to the elbows but he just kept at it. He smashed a computer screen with his fist …”

“…Thank God we relocated the primates …”

“… I yelled ‘what the hell are you doing’ and he came at me like he wanted to kill me. I had to hit him with a beaker…”

“…We’ll never be ready for the symposium now …”

“…He looked like a surfer, didn’t he? We came out of the staff meeting and he practically knocked he down. I chased im but he had too much of  a lead ..”

“…These animal rights maniacs should all be -”

“No.” Clare interrupted. “It couldn’t be them. They would have removed the animals before they destroyed the labs.” Were her hands shaking, or was it the cat they held?

A group of white coats stared. She knew them but couldn’t recognize them. One of them took the cat from Clare. “Look how frightened the poor thing is.”

Another regarded Clare. “So we’re dealing with a deranged surfer? I’d prefer the activists.”

Nearby at floor level, something screamed. Everyone jumped. Clare backed away from the group. “I’ve got to get back.”

“Thanks for your help, Dr. Austen.”

“Sure. Anytime.”

Heading back down the stairs, her lab assistant Steve seemed energized by the experience. As he spoke, his hands flapped and swooped like bats at sunset. “I got twelve of them. One of the rats had part of its skull removed and the tiniest implants inside. The precision of the work is really impressive.  I hope this doesn’t ruin their data, some important work being done up there, especially by McGregor’s people …”

Tommy murmured, “You okay?” Clare replied with a curt nod. He touched her shoulder in a gesture of support that for once had nothing to do with making time. She felt a rush of affection that petrified her.

As they stepped back into her lab, Steve concluded, “… and tehy should all get thrown in prison.”

“So there’s proof that animal activists were responsible?” Clare was surprised.

“Well, no, but I heard Dr. McGregor himself say that, after all, it was only a matter of time. “Steve gloried in saying the great doctor’s name. How quick he was to accept the stated, to revere the proven.

He resumed babbling as he installed the new tachistoscope lighting element. Tommy took his lead from Clare and sat silently.

Thanks for your help, Dr. Austen …. Sure. Anytime. What a coward she’d become. Scientists opposed to vivisection were tremendously unpopular. But perhaps if she made her views known she might convince others – an other – to try different research strategies. She knew all the for-the-benefit-of-mankind arguments. In her nine years of higher education and ten years as a researcher, surely she’d heard them all – from the self-righteous to the self-aggrandizing to the thoughtful and noble. She appreciated their persuasiveness, particularly the one that saw vivisection as Darwinism in action. To Clare it was simply a class struggle and her sympathies were fully with the oppressed. But by the time she’d formed this opinion, she’d learned what outspokenness could do to a GPA; a tenure request; a lunch in the faculty dining room.

The look in the eyes of those hallway animals.

Clare made herself stop picturing them. What about this deranged surfer anyway? A rejected graduate applicant run amok? An advocate of –

“Uh?” Steve had replaced the bulb and needed further instructions.

“Let’s continue.” She pushed all else from her mind. Research would now resume into hemispheric organization and lateralization, pre- and post-commissurotomy, on subject Tom Q, as Tommy was known in Clare’s published research.

Tommy was seven when he suffered his first epileptic seizure. An electrical storm raged through his head, knocking him unconscious and hurtling him across the floor. The older he got, the worse the seizures became, despite modern medicine’s best efforts to block the attacks. A year ago, the seizures were deemed life-threatening. A host of specialists recommended the last resort: brain surgery. Since Tommy didn’t want to die at twenty-seven, even thought there was a precedent for it among rock musicians, he agreed to have a commissurotomy, with the hope that after it was performed, his epileptical storms could not travel as far, nor wreak as much damage.

For a few patients, the surgery quells the epilepsy entirely. Which leaves these individuals quite lucky, if they haven’t also incurred brain damage during the risky operation. So far Tommy seemed to have become one of the lucky ones.

The human brain, like that of many other animals, in part consists of near-identical looking halves, the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Each has primary domain over half the body. Connecting the hemispheres is a thick bridge of nerve fibers, the corpus callosum, or central commissure. Via this bridge, the two halves of the brain communicate, sharing what its half of the body is sensing about the world, avoiding duplicate or contradictory responses. Without such communication, the experiences and memories of each half of the brain could diverge, creating wholly separate consciousnesses in the same head.

Commissurotomy severs this bridge, terminates those communications. Yet on a day-to-day basis, split brain patients function very well. Their brain hemispheres adapt, finding new ways of learning what the other half is doing.

In labs like Clare’s, however, split barins were temporarily robbed of their adapting abilities and experiments were conducted suggesting how very different each brain hemisphere is. So different, that she was increasingly convinced that every brain has at least two separate consciousnesses, often in conflict. On bad days, Clare was sure the brain was designed to foster indecision, mixed feelings, confusion.

“Clare?” Tommy’s voice was so gentle, he must think she was brooding about the upstairs lab incident she was actually refusing to consider. “I can’t see the dot.”

“Hold on,”Clare replied, “Steve has to dim the lights first. Steve? Steve.” Shame that Steve was graduating this quarter. She’d really hate to lose him.

Eventually the lights dimmed. Tommy stared straight ahead, his solemn concentration in conflict with his deliriously messy jet black hair, so blatantly dyed, it was an in joke. She admired the intensity with which he could focus his attention as he stared at the fixation point.

Even after commissurotomy, the eyes and ears of split brain patients still transmit information to both brain halves, as occurs in “normals.” However, sensory inputs can be isolated so that only one side of the split brain receives them. Today, Tommy would stare at a fixed point in the middle of a screen, where a projector called a tachistoscope would flash an image for about 1/1ooth of a second, far from the visual midpoint, so that it registered in only half his field of vision, and thus was visible to only one side of his brain. In this way, Clare could test each hemisphere on what it had seen and on how it could articulate that information.

The experiment itself probably wouldn’t tell her anything new about brain organization. But studying Tommy’s brain over time, from the month before his operation until some years after it, would show her what changes, if any, occurred in the way Tommy’s brain processed “reality,” now that the hemispheres were split and his epilepsy calmed. This might tell her something about the brain’s ability to revise and ad lib the way it does business. And that might be quite interesting information to have.

Two pictures flashed on the screen. Tommy’s left hemisphere was shown a cow. Tommy’s right hemisphere saw a winter scene with snow-covered home and trees, kids on a sleigh, a snowman in the yard. “Did you get that, Tommy?”

“Roger.”

“Now I’m going to show you more pictures. These will stay on the screen as long as you need to study them. Steve? Okay Steve. Steve.”

Eventually four drawings appeared, shown to both sides of Tommy’s brain: a carton of milk, a tricycle, a rose bush, a snow plow. Clare placed a pointer in Tommy’s left hand, the hand controlled by his right hemisphere. He held onto her fingers until she cleared her throat in warning.

“Looking at these four drawings,” Clare said, “tell me which of them, if any, are related to the flash images you just saw.”

“The carton of milk is related since I saw a cow.”

“Anything else?”

“Nope,” Tommy said, while his left hand raised the pointer to the snow plow.

“Why did you point to the snow plow?” Clare asked innocently.

Tommy’s right hand snapped fingers nervously, drummed the table, then quieted. “You ever walk through a cow field? It wouldn’t hurt to have a snow plow moving ahead of you.”

“Of course, I didn’t think about that.” She ignored Steve’s chuckling. Tommy’s expression was bland, although his left eyebrow lowered in frown mode.

“Let’s move on. Next one, Steve.”

Amazingly, a flash of images occurred as soon as she requested. This time, a blank screen flashed to Tommy’s left hemisphere and a picture of a gun flashed to Tommy’s right hemisphere. “What did you see?” Clare asked.

Nada.”

“Here are four drawings to peruse at your leisure.” A horse, a banana, a car, a gun. “Do any of these match the picture you saw a moment ago?”

“I didn’t see anything,” Tommy insisted, as his left hand pointed to the gun.

“You’re pointing to the gun. Does that mean you saw a gun?”

“No, I’m pointing at it because I wanna know, who draws these things anyway?” The left side of Tommy’s face, controlled by his right brain, grimaced while he spoke. Clare had seen this effect in split brain patients before: half the face frowning to indicate that half the brain was mistaken. It never ceased to amaze.

Want to read more? The rest of the novel is available in serial here.

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