|Even with his credentials, it took William Sterling several weeks to get permission to see Professor Andrew Manyard. Ex-Professor was a more appropriate term because Dr. Manyard now spent his time in a maximum-security mental institution. Although heavily sedated and in isolation, he still managed to strike fear into the hearts and minds of the hardened asylum workers.
Sterling, a detective with the fifth precinct, arrived at the institution at 11:00 AM.
His wife, Nina, was currently confined to Mount Sinai Hospital, in a catatonic state. A professor at Stony Brook University, Biological and Medical Science Research division, Nina had been selected for a small research team that would reconstruct the experiments that Dr. Manyard and his team had conducted three decades earlier. Something had gone horribly wrong.
In a small room at the institution, Senior Nurse, Ingrid Church, briefed Sterling on the safety issues regarding the visitation.
“What do you know about the case?” Sterling asked the stringent nurse as he emptied the contents of his pockets into a plastic bin.
“He hasn’t spoken much about the incident in the thirty years he’s been locked up here,” Nurse Ingrid replied. “I will tell you what I know.”
“Thank you, I would appreciate that,” Sterling returned.
“Dr. Manyard’s team had been experimenting with chemical and drug combinations that could revive a person after several minutes of death.”
“As was my wife,” Sterling interjected.
“Yes, apparently that is the case.”
“I found no testimony in the court transcripts that would shed light on the events of Dr. Manyard’s breakdown. Is there any documentation of his findings in his personal possessions?” Sterling questioned.
“Unfortunately, all of Dr. Manyard’s research findings were destroyed when, by his own hand, the facility was set ablaze in 1982. Within a few hours of the experiments, all of Dr. Manyard’s team had died tragically or committed suicide. Professor Manyard, the only survivor, remained locked-up and lock-lipped since the incident,” Nurse Ingrid replied.
“He is the only hope I have of saving my wife. His knowledge will be instrumental in bringing Nina back from the brink of oblivion,” Sterling confided.
“Well, he has been talking a bit more in the last few months. He may be ready to speak about the incident.”
“What has he been saying?”
“I don’t know exactly, ramblings, non-sense. The staff here is afraid of the words he speaks. They do not repeat what he says.”
Sterling complied with a multitude of safety issues: stripped of his pen, wallet, business cards, and money - anything that could possibly be used in any way as a weapon or to harm oneself.
“The Guards will lead you to the interview room.”
“Thank You, Nurse Ingrid.”
“Good luck to you, Mr. Sterling,” she replied.
The guards led Mr. Sterling into the depths of the facility. A maze of security features; locked gates, doors, electric scanning devices and the sort cut a dizzying path to the interview room. The room had a table with two chairs on either side. They brought Manyard into the room. His hair jutted wildly from the sides of his head and he walked awkwardly. He relayed a pristine calm as he sat on the opposite side of the table from Mr. Sterling. His dull brown eyes, clouded with sedation, regarded Sterling with indifference. The guards left, notifying both men, they would be watching from the other room.
Sterling made his formal introductions and explained the current situation with his wife. Manyard was despondent. For the next forty minutes Sterling questioned Manyard using the techniques he had so often applied to interrogations of hardened criminals. The stone-faced Manyard blew him off effortlessly. After several minutes of silence, Sterling decided to appeal to him on an emotional level. He disregarded all his formal training and petitioned Manyard earnestly, speaking from his heart.
“You have to tell me what it was that you had seen. Please, I beg of you,” Sterling pleaded.
“No I cannot. I will not,” Manyard replied.
“The fate of my wife’s life lies within the knowledge you possess. I know that what you had seen is what she had seen. If I can find out what that is, specifically, then I can begin to bring her back,” Sterling implored.
“I am truly sorry for your wife but, I vowed to myself, for the good of the entire world and every nation and every citizen on the planet, not to tell anyone about my experiments.”
The former Doctor’s face crumpled in sadness. His lower lip bulged as a mighty frown forced it forward. His forehead creased like a set of warped ribs; his eyes pulled down at the corners as they welled up with tears.
“What was it, Doctor? What did you witness?”
“No, no more questions.”
“Did you see God? And was he mad that you had tampered with the lines that separate life and death? That you had broken his rules and disregarded the very laws of nature that he had set forth?”
“No, No… Shut up!”
“Did you see the gates of hell open before you, the land of demons and fire, torture and misery, dismal and dysfunctional?”
The Doctors eyes went away as he looked past this room, perhaps back in time to the night of the original experiment. Sterling pulled himself back in his seat, startled, for a certain gleam of utter madness shone within Manyard’s eyes. His frown twisted into a malignant smile, his creased forehead and brow relaxed in solemn acceptance. His nostrils flared and his breathing became shallow. He was there, in full recall of the experiments he had performed some thirty years ago. Now, Sterling just had to get him to talk about it.
“Please, Doctor!” Sterling pounded his fist upon the table. “In the name of God, tell me what it is you had seen!”
Doctor Manyard said nothing.
“You were there; you were dead for a full ten minutes. Tell me, what lie beyond that veil of death.”
Dr. Manyard turned to Sterling slowly. His eyeballs quivered and wavered in different directions, as if he were in REM sleep.
Sterling continued to press him, “You’ve held this secret for so long. Wouldn’t you like to unburden yourself of this knowledge? It is time to let it go.”
“It would feel good to relinquish this suffering. I don’t want to hold onto this forever. I don’t want it any more!” Manyard confessed, grinding his teeth as he spoke.
“I could carry the torch from here on. Let it go,” Sterling said.
Manyard's smile curled at the corners, even more than before, with an impossible wickedness. Sterling could not help thinking briefly about the Grinch, an old cartoon about a beast intent on destroying Christmas; it was the same smile. Manyard’s eyes stopped shuffling and locked with Sterling‘s.
“You want to know?” Manyard asked.
Sterling shook his head, yes, despite his apprehension, knowing this was the only path to helping his wife.
"I would like to tell," Manyard said. "It has been torture, holding on to this for so long. I trust you will be a responsible guardian for what I intend to relay to you."
"I will," Sterling replied.
“Come closer, I will tell you, but it is important that no one else hears.”
Sterling leaned into him, prepared to learn one of the great mysteries of life and death. Manyard began his recount of that fateful night in a low voice, nearly a whisper.
“I lay upon the subject table in the test room, bathed in soft lights so as not to affect my senses or influence my experience. I had been heavily sedated so there was no pain. I actually heard, and felt, my heart stop.”
Doctor Manyard stared off into space, as if forgetting that he was in the process of relaying a story.
“Yes, go on,” Sterling prompted.
Manyard’s facial features relaxed and settled. His eyes cleared and his brows rose lightly as if he were witnessing something glorious. He continued.
“I saw the white light, just as everyone before me had claimed to witness. I walked to the light and my family and friends were waiting there for me. My Grandmother and my Mother beckoned me, embraced me with their love as I ran to them. My father stood at their side. He had died while I was in the service and I was unable to attend his funeral. In his eyes I could see that he had forgiven me for not being there when he had passed away - for not being at his bedside. That had bothered me for so many years, but that guilt dissolved as we embraced. -- There were others, Uncle Jim and Aunt Irene, who had passed on ten years ago, within a couple of months of each other. Reyna, my high school sweetheart stepped forward in the line. She had been killed by a drunk driver within a year after graduation. We had broken off shortly after prom, wanting to pursue our own paths; nevertheless, her death saddened me deeply. -- My high school science teacher, Mr. Barron was there. He had been a big influence on my pursuing a career in science and health. I ran to each one of them, kissing and hugging, telling them how much I loved them and them, telling me the same. -- As I did this, more loved ones and friends appeared. My college physics professor, Dr. Whelan stood waiting. I had not even known Scott Whelan had passed. I had seen him only months before and we kept in touch regularly. Wouldn’t his wife have called if something had happened to him?”
Doctor Manyard’s voice lowered and slowed, his expressions became grim.
“I saw my neighbor Jack Butler standing behind him, a good friend and great neighbor, always willing to lend a helping hand. I had waved to him that very morning on the way to the lab. Strange. -- Then, I saw my fiancée, Emily. She was standing in the very room this experiment was taking place. She was an anesthesiologist. She was quite alive. Right then I knew, what I had been experiencing was a lie. -- I turned to look back at my Mother and Grandmother. They were fading into nothing. One by one, everybody standing in this magnificent white light began to fade away, until they were no longer there. I realized these visions were nothing more than my mind revisiting the important people I cared for most in my life. It was like a film reel, or review of my life. -- The bright light began to fade and an image of Jesus stood before me. He said nothing, made no movement. I recognized this vision as the exact image I had picked out for my Mother’s funeral and wake cards. Once I realized this, his image began to fade.”
Dr. Manyard took a deep breath. His brows pushed down to a V-shape and his eyes took on a sinister glint. He continued with his tale.
“All around me became orange and red. Flames began to ignite around me and giant ribbons of black soot and smoke wafted across my view. I began to hear the screams and moans of tortured souls. The lament of suffering, the cries of agony, the smell of burning flesh and vomit, death and decay, and defecation. -- Through a curtain of flames stepped a figure that startled me. Cloven hooves, spiked tail, horns upon its head. It ran to me and hovered over me, its breath, hot fury in my face. This beast’s eyes bore down upon me, its hideous face a representation of pure evil. But, when I thought those words in my mind, I realized that was all it was, a representation. Upon this realization the massive figure vanished, followed by the flames, the cries of agony and finally the red and orange glow.”
Once again, Manyard's expressions relaxed.
“I stood in a dull white light with nothing before me.”
“What is out there?” I screamed, “Show me, please!”
“An Irish Setter appeared, tail wagging, its eyes eager for me to embrace him in my arms. It was Laddie, my dog from my childhood. I wanted to run to him, lavish him with hugs and affection, but I resisted. This too, began to fade. -- I was now clinically dead for eight minutes, the moment when the last neuron in my brain would fire and my imagination, hopes, wishes, dreams and preconceptions would no longer have pathways to deliver memories to my mind’s eye. I would finally be at the moment of truth, the moment when just my soul and the great beyond would meet. The moment came, I felt my gray matter shut-down, fire its last electrical function. -- My being entered the moment that I had waited for all this time; to witness the great beyond, the world behind the shroud of death, the face behind the veil, the dark side of the moon. I felt a pop, a disengage, my soul released from my earthbound body. A door had been opened before me to reveal its ever forbidden secrets. The white light dimmed and the truth finally unfolded before me…”
Manyard had stopped, not going any further with his story. Intoxicated by Manyard’s narrative, in a fit of raging excitement, Sterling struggled to control his frenzied anticipation.
“What was there Manyard?” Sterling barked in a half scream. “What did you see?”
After a moment, Manyard started talking again.
“It was something more frightening than anything I could have experienced. This truth had driven others to suicide. It had snapped a chord that had kept me tethered to the terra-firma, to reality. It had driven me instantly mad. There existed only one reason I did not take my own life within minutes of being revived. I knew I had to dismantle the project, destroy the capabilities of this experiment, and vanquish the notes from written pages. No one could know the truth, for humanity hung in its balance. Society would unravel; common decency would shatter, in the shadow of this knowledge.”
Manyard trailed off, pulled inward and seemed to die inside. His eyes glazed over and he began to enter a trance-like state. Sterling had to bring him back. Manyard was on the brink of confiding to Sterling the very secret he had so long ago locked away in the vault of his mind. The only chance Sterling had for saving his wife and returning her from a catatonic state would be to know what she knew. They could share this knowledge with each other and it would help her through. She would not be alone. Sterling urged Manyard in a calm and rational voice, to reveal his hand.
“What Manyard? What is beyond the great divide between life and death? What did you see?”
When no response came, Sterling shook him by the shoulders. Manyard snapped out of his trance. A wry smile purged his waxen and sweaty face. His eyes locked with Sterling‘s.
“What did you see?” Sterling asked again.
“Nothing.” Manyard said, in a flat tone.
Sterling looked at him questioningly. Manyard responded again, realizing that Sterling did not understand.
“Nothing… complete and utter nothing. A vacuum, a void, darkness so complete to create a perfect black. Nothing to infinity. No gods, no entities, no souls…just opaque madness.”
Sterling rose from the chair with a start. Of all the possibilities, this was an answer he had never anticipated. On the surface, it did not seem so bad. But, the implications of this knowledge began to play out in his mind.
He heard Manyard chuckle, then laugh. It sounded distant and secondary to the racing thoughts in Sterling’s mind. Thoughts of the vain and meaningless actuality of mankind, the banality of existence, all the false hopes of humanity.
Further implications became apparent. A murderer of children, once the death sentence had been carried out, would not pay for his sins for all eternity. A person committed to doing good in the world, that sacrificed modern comforts, would not be rewarded in the afterlife. All the hope and prayer, mental askance for healing, aspirations, salvation, all were meaningless. One by one, the foundations of society crumbled in William Sterling’s mind; guilt, hope, fate, faith, goodwill, charity, human rights. We lived in chaos, where nothing had a divine meaning. We were savage animals with delusions of grandeur.
Sterling heard Manyard laugh anew, boisterous and hearty, the laugh of a madman - the ironic merriment of someone who had lost his very last marble, of someone that had become unhinged from sanity. He looked over and Manyard’s eyes and mouth were closed. It took a few moments to realize; this clearly insane laugh was not coming from Manyard at all, but was passing from Sterling’s own mouth.
Only moments ago, Sterling had the underlying notion that there had been some essence watching over humanity - that, in the end, things would be fair and just. Although William Sterling had not been a religious man, had never actively participated in prayer, the idea of a great overseer apparently had a calming effect on his psyche. Now, mankind was alone in the universe. No possibility of intervention on behalf of goodness and decency existed.
Sterling, suddenly overcome with intense rage, hated Manyard for telling him his secret, for ruining the illusion of sanctity. Sterling jumped up from his seat in a fit of anger and wedged the chair under the door handle so access to the room would be thwarted. He violently threw the table to the floor and kicked one of the table legs bending it inward. After several kicks, the leg broke loose and clattered to the floor. He heard banging at the door as the institution guards struggled to get in.
Sterling picked up the table leg and ran at Manyard. He thrust the table leg into Manyard’s chest. Manyard had let this occur, not moving in defense or avoidance of the enraged lunatic. Indeed, when the weapon pierced his body, Manyard chortled hysterically. Sterling laughed too. He laughed as he pressed down on the table leg even harder and Manyard spit blood from his mouth, and then became silent.
Later, authorities would ask Sterling, why? Why did you kill this man that you had come to see in the asylum? Sterling gave no answer. The reasoning behind this bizarre and violent behavior became Sterling’s secret.