The story of Kerk and Marli continues with a visit to a neurologist.
|The story of Kerk and Marli began in "The Better Half" |
It was Tuesday morning and Irwin Brothers' Market was not very busy, just retired folks, night workers and people like Kerk who could set their own hours. Only one of the two checkout lanes in the little store was open and as usual, a girl named Normandie was working there. She quickly, but carefully, placed Kerk's tomatoes into a brown paper bag, then held the last one up and smiled at him.
"You've picked out some really nice ones. Planning to make anything special?"
"Just some sauce for spagetti."
"Sounds good. That's a lot of food. You'd think Marli was still there helping you eat it." She slapped her hand over her mouth and looked down. "Sorry! That was really awful to say, wasn't it?"
"That's okay. Sometimes the wrong words just slip out. Happens to everyone."
"Especially me. Have a really nice day, Kerk."
"Thanks. You, too."
Kerk took a bag of groceries in each arm and headed back to his apartment.
"She was really flirting with you. I bet she was hoping you'd invite her over for dinner."
Anyone who happened to notice Kerk's smile might have wondered what caused it, because none of them could see the ghost walking along beside him.
"She was just being friendly, Marli. Probably like that to all the customers."
"That was more than just customer friendly, smiley."
"She wouldn't be interested in me. She's a high school girl. She'd think I'm ancient."
"If she was in high school, she'd be in class now. She must at least be in college."
"She still wouldn't care about anyone my age."
"You just think that because you're a guy. Girls like older men."
"Doesn't matter. I'm not interested in anyone but you."
Marli chuckled, "Lucky for you, I'm a ghost. You don't have to worry about anyone else being interested in me."
Kerk's face turned serious. "If I really was lucky, you'd still be alive, Marli."
"Well, I'm not, sadsack, so just be happy I'm still with you."
There were two plates of spagetti on the table. To most people, one was half-eaten and the other had not been touched. Kerk saw this, but he also saw that in Marli's view of the world, she had eaten more than he had. He knew how odd this would look to anyone else, a man still making meals for the woman he loved months after she had died, then throwing every one of them away. Before Marli came back, he would have thought anyone who did that was pathetic.
He was looking across the table when the two images that coexisted in this mind, Marli sitting there, eating spagetti and the untouched plate in front of the empty chair, started to clash, each one demanding to be recognized as the only true one. Kerk leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and clutching his forehead. He heard the fork Marli dropped, the fork that had never really moved from where he set it, rattle on the floor and the sound felt like a gong being struck inside his head.
"Not another one!" Marli cried.
Kerk groaned, "Another one."
"Does this help?"
He could feel Marli's hands on his shoulders, gently rubbing them, but her touch which usually comforted him was now a burning pain.
"Stop! Don't touch me."
"Sorry, I was just..."
"Don't say anything. Just leave me alone until it's over."
A few minutes later, Kerk looked up. Marli was standing on the other side of the room, looking hurt.
"I feel so helpless when you get those attacks, sweety. I can't do anything for you."
"There's nothing to do. Just wait and let them pass."
"But, they're getting worse. What if you have a really bad one and you have convulsions or go into a coma or something? I can't call an ambulance. I can't shout out the window or pound on the door across the hall or anything."
Kerk smiled weakly. "Maybe you could find that Evangelica woman. She can see you."
Marli shuddered. "Don't even suggest that. I never want to see her again." She walked over and hesitantly placed her hands on Kerk's shoulders, afraid he might still draw away from her, but he did not.
"There is one thing I can do. I can nag and I'm going to keep nagging you until you go to a doctor and see what's wrong with you."
"I don't think this is something a doctor could do anything about."
"We won't know that until you go and you are going to go. You might as well accept that and get it over with, because I'm going to pester you until you do."
The lawn in front of Dodgson Hall might seem to be a strange place for a secret meeting, but sneaking down a dark alley would attract much more attention than coming here. Normandie walked over to the darkhaired woman and looked around. Anyone who saw her would assume she was just a student discussing a class with one of her professors. There was no one close to them except a couple students taking a nap on the grass. Even if they woke up, their earphones would keep them from overhearing the conversation.
"I don't think the cure is working on him, Evangelica. He's still buying a lot of food and I'm sure he was talking to her after he left the store."
"You must be patient, Normandie. He may be resisting the cure for now, but every dose weakens him more. You are certain you are injecting it properly?"
"Sure, I got it in the tomato this time. You know, if I could see spirits, I wouldn't have to guess if she was still with him. Isn't it about time I got to do that?"
"Again, you must be patient. Full membership in the Entrusted is limited to those who have proven their dedication to our duty is beyond question."
"But you do think I'll be accepted someday?"
"Nothing is certain until it happens, but if you continue on the path you now follow, it seems probable you will be. For now, you can serve us best without the gift."
"What do you mean?"
"Spirits know when they can be seen, Normandie. Since you do not have spirit-sight, you can act on our behalf without arousing their suspicions."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right."
Kerk kept shuffling his feet as he sat in the waiting room. He picked up four different magazines and set them back down without looking at them. Marli shook her head in the chair next to him.
"Don't be so restless, squirrelly."
"Can't help it. Just being here makes me nervous."
"Then try to think about something else."
"I don't know. Anything else."
"Okay, how about what would happen if someone decides to sit in that chair?"
"I'd get out of it. I know they can't see me."
"But what if they sat down really fast?"
"Then, I'd get up really fast."
"What if you weren't paying attention and they sat down before you realized what was happening?"
"I guess I'd get squished then."
"But you're a ghost. Wouldn't they pass right through you?"
"Maybe, but I'm not going to try it to find out."
"I wouldn't want you to, Marli. I was just wondering what would happen. You're already dead, so can anything really hurt you any more?"
"Probably not. I mean, I can't get any deader. But, if anybody does sit on me, you've got to clean up the mess."
They both turned to see who had spoke, hoping he had not noticed Kerk talking to the seemingly empty chair. It was a middle-aged man with thick glasses, wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard.
"Yes, that's me. You're the brain surgeon?"
The doctor gave Kerk a professional smile. "I'm Dr. Rimwold and to be more accurate, I'm a neurologist. I've just finished analysing the results of your tests. Would you please follow me."
Kerk and Marli followed the doctor into a consultation room and sat down. Kerk glanced at Marli for reassurance, then asked, "So, what's wrong?"
"Well, structurally, your brain is in excellent condition. There are no tumors, no sign of trauma or degeneration."
"That's good, but there's something else?"
"Yes, I'm concerned about some of your chemical readings. For one thing, your DMT is elevated."
"Well, people with high levels of DMT often exhibit some form of psychosis."
"Like hearing voices and seeing things that aren't there?"
"Yes, that is one form, although to patients with that psychosis, what they hear and see seems very real." The doctor paused for a moment before he continued. "When, I came out, Kerk, I noticed you appeared to be having a conversation with someone."
Marli shrugged at Kerk "You might as well tell the doctor about me, screwball. If we want him to help you, he ought to know the truth."
Kerk took a deep breath and looked down at the floor as he answered, "I was talking to Marli."
"I see. And who is Marli?"
"She's my girlfriend. More than that, really. We're living together. Or we were. I mean, we're still together, but she isn't living anymore. She's a ghost."
"Do you see her now?"
"Yeah, she's sitting right next to me."
"You said she's a ghost. How do you know that?"
Kerk hesitated and Marli reached over and laid her hand on top of his. "Don't worry. We'll get through this."
"Because she's dead. I know that she died. She knows that, too. Besides, I can see she isn't there."
Dr. Rimwold looked puzzled by this. "What do you mean by that, Kerk?"
"I mean, when I look there, I see the empty chair, I see there's nobody in it, just like you do. But, I also see Marli there."
"She's transparent? You can see through her, right?"
Kerk shook his head. "No, she's solid. Just like when she was alive." He looked up at the doctor. "It's nothing like the way they show ghosts in the movies. It's like there are two versions of the world in my head. Most of the time they're just both there, I can handle it, but sometimes..."
"Sometimes you can't handle it and that's when you have your attacks?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"This is very interesting, Kerk." The doctor made some notes on his clipboard. "I'm not aware of any other case quite like this."
"So, now I'm officially crazy?"
"I wouldn't say that. Other than the attacks, you seem to be functioning very well. My main objective now is to determine how to prevent those attacks."
"You said the DMT was one thing. What else was there?"
Dr. Rimwold looked back at his clipboard. "We found something very strange. You have significant amounts of a substance that appears to be derived from gyromitrin."
"More than I should have?"
"You shouldn't have any at all. This is not something the human body is known to produce. Actually, I'm not familiar with anything exactly like it."
"What's this gyromitrin?"
"A deadly toxin found in certain mushrooms. Fortunately, this substance is not nearly as toxic, but I would not be surprised if it was responsible for your attacks."
"Then, I should stop eating mushrooms."
"I would advise that for now. This chemical does not occur naturally in mushrooms, but possibly it is being produced when they are processed. I'll need to notify the public health department about this. It'll be easier to determine if it's causing your attacks after I've studied your brain activity. Which reminds me, Kerk, you'll need to have another EEG."
"Again? How many do I need?"
"You've had more than one?"
"Yeah, the technician said the first one was ruined because he must've forgot to clear some kind of buffer and my EEG got mixed in with someone else's."
"That's strange. I'd say the same thing happened to the one I saw. Let me check into this."
When the doctor was gone, Marli asked, "Do you think he believes I'm really here?"
"Probably not, but I do. It doesn't really matter if he does."
"Unless he tries to 'cure' you so you don't see me anymore."
"He doesn't seem too concerned that I see you. Just wants to stop the attacks."
"That's what we want him to do. Let's hope he's satisfied with that."
It was half an hour later when Dr. Rimwold returned. "I've got both EEG's, Kerk. They both look like they're corrupted with another scan."
"Maybe you need to get a new technician."
"No, I don't think they're actually corrupted at all. I compared them and they don't vary more than two different scans for the same patient should. You see, even if the technician did it wrong both times, it would be merged with different data each time. Your part of the pattern would match, but the rest wouldn't."
"So you're saying..."
"I'm saying these EEG's are an accurate representation of your neural activity. All of the processes that occur in a normal brain appear to be happening twice in yours."
"That's why I both do and do not see Marli at the same time?"
"It's much more than that, Kerk. There are two distinct flows of information through these processes. In effect, there are two separate minds in your brain, two different people."
"Me and Marli."
"You and the person you call Marli, yes."
"You say that like you don't think she's really Marli."
Marli gave Kerk a puzzled look. "Who does this guy think I am?"
Dr. Rimwold rubbed his chin and thought a moment. "I know you don't want to hear this Kerk, but it seems unlikely the entity you're sharing your brain with is the same person Marli was when she was alive."
"No! She's Marli. I know she is."
"I haven't encountered anything like this before, so this is just my guess, but I suspect the entity is just an imitation of Marli built from your memories of her. Most likely, your brain constructed it as a means of dealing with your grief over losing her."
"Are you saying I'm just imagining Marli?"
"No, not at all. It might have started that way, but it appears the entity has developed its own thought patterns, its own memories, its own consciousness. Even though it doesn't have its own body, I would say it's a real person, just like you and I are, Kerk."
"If he thinks I'm a person, why does he keep talking about me like I'm some kind of parasite?"
"Marli doesn't like being called an 'it', doctor."
"Sorry, I forget the entity...I forget you can hear me, Marli."
"That's better. But, if I'm in your head, why doesn't it seem to me that I'm in there? I mean, I'm looking at your face, not looking out of it."
Kerk pointed to the chair next to him. "Marli wants to know why she sees things from there and not from where I am."
"Interesting question. You see, most people have a misconception about how the brain handles sensory information. They think the eyes are just like cameras. They send signals to the brain and whatever they see appears there like on a monitor. Actually, the information is analysed, broken down to basic elements, then a model of the environment is built from those elements and the image we are conscious of is formed from that model. A few simple changes in the process, and the image can easily be one from a different point of view."
Kerk frowned. "I don't think anything about that was simple."
Marli added, "Me neither."
"The essential thing is that the brain can manipulate information so that both of you perceive each other and your surroundings appropriately."
Kerk asked, "What do we do now, Dr. Rimwold?"
"I'd like you to stay in the hospital for a few days, for observation. We need to determine if your attacks are a response to Marli's presence, or if something else is causing them."
Normandie was reading a book on a bench outside Dodgson Hall, when Evangelica sat down beside her.
"Kerk is in the hospital, Evangelica."
"That is most unfortunate, Normandie. We must abandon our current plan for freeing him from the spirit and develop a new one. This spirit is an unusually challenging one."
"Couldn't I just start giving him the cure again when he gets out?"
"No, you must not do that. The doctors will no doubt have detected its presence in his body. If you continue to inject his food, you risk making the authorities aware of the existence of the Entrusted."
"So, what do we do?"
"I do not know, child. I think it would be prudent if I consulted with one wiser than I am."
Marli sat on the end of the hospital bed while Kerk looked out the window.
"I'll sure be happy to get out of here, Marli."
"Me, too. At least Dr. Rimwold was nice enough to have them serve you extra food so there'd be enough for me."
Kirk turned around to face Marli. "That was nice. I wonder how he explained that."
"Probably wasn't easy, but he's a pretty smart guy." Marli patted the bed beside her. "You know, snuggles, it has been kind of fun sharing this little bed. Maybe we should get one like it at home."
"I think the one we already have there is just fine."
There was a knock on the door and Dr. Rimwold walked in. "All the paperwork for your release is taken care of. You can leave whenever you want to." He smiled and added, "Both of you."
Marli laughed, "Sure, like I could leave without you if I wanted to."
Kerk smiled at Marli's remark, then said, "Thanks, Dr. Rimwold. You've been a great help to us."
"I do what I can. There haven't been any more episodes while you were here, so I feel confident Marli was not causing your attacks. Let me know right away if they reoccur."
"Your DMT level is still high. I'm not sure if the existence of Marli's mind is raising it or your brain having a naturally high level is what allowed her mind to form there. Either way, it doesn't seem to be detrimental in any way." The doctor looked at Kerk silently for a moment, then said, "I would like to give you a little advice before you leave."
"Sure, what is it?"
"Your situation is very unusual and I suspect many people are not going to be able accept it. You should be extremely careful who you choose to tell about Marli."
"Right. For now, I think it'll be better if we keep it secret."
"Good. And one other thing. I know you believe the Marli who is with you now is the same Marli who died."
"She is, doctor. I can tell."
"Maybe you're right. We can't really explain consciousness, much less prove the mind in one brain is or is not the same person as another. But someday, something might happen that convinces you...convinces both of you, that she is not the same person Kerk knew before. If that ever happens, remember Marli is still a real person and the love you feel for each other is no less real because she is someone else."
"I don't think it'll ever happen, but if it does, I'll remember what you said."
Marli stood up and grasped Kerk's hand. "We'll both remember it."
Kerk squeezed her hand affectionately. "Then we'd best be going."
As he led his patient into the hallway, Dr. Rimwold said, "You might be interested in what I found out about that gyromitrin derivative. A friend of mine has done a study of tribal medicine. According to her, shamans in many cultures know how to produce that substance. They use it as a cure for people they believe are possessed by evil spirits."