If you could read one's mind legally, would you? What if the tables were turned?
|The Compassion Project
"So, Emma. I'm curious. What made you decide to do this experiment? I mean, not the whole project. I get that. Not a bad concept at all. But tonight? I mean, why was it so urgent that I meet you?" He was trying to get her talking so she would forget he was gluing her head to electrodes. He also wanted to know why she interrupted his dinner to tell him to meet her at the lab at midnight. He was just one of her Research Assistants, still in school, not even a full time employee of the university like she was. But her rating at the end of the semester made a huge difference in where he would attend next year, or even if he would remain in the program.
"There's something I need to find out and quick. I'll fill you in later." Emma couldn't think straight with Ronnie picking through her hair.
“Please stop fidgeting, Emma. I’m almost done."
“Just hurry, Ronnie, for God’s sake. Are you always this meticulous?” Emma couldn’t help snapping at him, slow as he was and as nervous as she was. Besides, the glue on her scalp itched madly. She didn't want to do this but she had to know what was inside his head, what was eating at him. She abhorred sneaking and breaking rules. It was not in her nature. But neither was falling in love with a half-baked fixer-upper of a man, so handsome yet so screwed up sometimes.
"Yes, I am. That's why you hired me for the project. Remember? Look, I just have to get these last few in just the right spots."
“Ronnie, save perfection for the ones who’ll sue if you jerk out too much hair. It won’t be me. Let’s just get this done. Okay?” She regretted her motto to always do in practice like you would in the real procedure. No bad habits to continue accidentally. She was generally lax in her lab with respect to students and faculty calling each other by their first names but not in areas of practice. Not until now, anyway.
“Are you sure you want to do this? You do realize that you'll be awake. And whatever you see in your mind’s eye will become memory for you? What if you learn something you didn’t want to know? What then? Can you still look at him the same way if you see or hear something unforgivable?”
Emma thought about the consequences, had already weighed the pros and cons, but she had to do just this once. Her conscience whispered to her like a prayer mantra, ...just this once, just this once. It was a noble venture, really, or so she had rationalized. After twelve long years analyzing other people’s heads, she never really knew what they saw through their damaged mental lenses. Not to mention the fact that she had too much at stake if he were damaged beyond repair. She had her career to think of. She wanted children. Children without messed up genes, that is. But she also had him and she loved him. God bless her own little soul, her grandmother's words crept in for a brief visit. If only she could just understand his moods, his nightmares, maybe she could get him through this crisis of his. Maybe she could ease her own fears about him and agree to his proposal. She found the ring yesterday. She had no time to lose.
“Ronnie, when you love someone, sometimes you just have to take a risk. You know, the old leap of faith? Haven’t you ever taken a risk for someone?”
“Emma, I’m standing here in a closed and supposedly empty lab, gluing probes on a prominent psychiatrist, not to mention my professor and faculty advisor. And all this in the wee hours of the morning, sleep deprived, and your final is next week. What the hell do you think this is, monkey bars at a pre-school playground? Is this not enough of a risk for you?
“I’m sorry, you're right, I'm sorry. It’s just I have to know what’s going on with him. I have to know if I can help him. Is that so wrong?” Emma felt a little quake of uncertainty but she had already gone too far. “What do you think? Wouldn’t you want to know what someone was going through if you loved them? Is there anyone you’d want to know about?
“I guess so. I met this woman once. She treated me like one of her girlfriends, told me everything about her love life but had not the least bit of interest in me as a man. I went mad over her, still think about her now, you know, where we would be right now if she had taken me seriously, what our kids would look like. I would have given my life for her but she just didn't notice. Well, never mind. It doesn't matter anymore.” Ronnie walked to Emma’s laptop to download the program. He had re-routed everything from the lab computer to hers. Returning, he pasted the last probe. “Here we go, last electrode. Do you have the zip drive?”
Emma pulled it out of a case in her purse and handed it over. It was Paul’s subconscious recorded on a little piece of plastic and metal. Ronnie took it, stared at it for a moment and laid it beside the computer.
“How did you get him to agree to this? I thought he was freaked out about your experimentation with the human subconscious.”
“I didn’t ask him. He’d never agree to it. I got him drunk and took advantage. No, really, I treated him to a little nap last night thanks to a few of the mild tranquilizers we use with skittish patients and children during MRI’s. It took several but they worked like magic. He’ll wake up in the morning with no knowledge my little experiment.”
“But you’ll know. Wouldn’t it be like keeping a secret that you cheated on him? It’s not a great way to start a relationship, is it? Anyway, this program was called the Compassion Project because it benefits people. And correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn’t it you who insisted that it be agreed upon by both subjects and only done after several counseling sessions? It’s supposed to help them understand their loved ones, not keep secrets from them. Right?
"Sure and that's still how I want you guys to operate. But who does the counseling? Me, that's who. I can take my own advice. Anyway, he's the one who wants to marry me. If he can't handle a little background check, he won't get a 'yes' from me. But he knew, he would always look at me and wonder what I saw while he was sleeping, while his brain was reliving its nightmares. He doesn't need any more garbage in his head. Don't you agree?
"Well, it’s a good thing its your conscience, not mine. I’m just your student, your lab rat. I am at your beck and call. Don't listen to me.”
“Look, I made this bed and I’m the one who will lie in it, not you. Let’s just do this already. I’ve got to get back before he wakes up.” Hand me the nitrous, I have too much chatter going on in my head. This ought to do the trick. Don't forget to turn it off in a few minutes. Okay?"
“Okay, Emma. If you insist. Now lie back and close your eyes. We are about to start. Ronnie put the zip drive in the computer and tapped some keys. Emma thought it sounded like rain on her grandmother's tin roof. "When I count to ten, you will begin to receive Paul’s information. But first, let me remind you of the signals. A beep will sound every ten minutes. If you want to skip forward to the next beep, raise your right hand. If you need to rewind to the previous beep, raise your left hand. If you want to stop, raise both. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the show.”
Emma closed her eyes and listened as Ronnie counted to ten. She inhaled the gas and felt the sensation of her body rising and spinning slowly, a common feeling associated with nitrous oxide. The inner chatter subsided. "Eight. Nine. Ten. Here we go." Pictures started flooding her mind, his mind. A women, a sour smell, random pains, lying on the floor, filthy little hands, child's hands, and a man, the smell of alcohol, a woman crying, “No, not him. Hit me. Stop, No.” A woman screams, a cough, gag, the child sobs, door slams, heaviness, the child can’t breathe, sticky, red floor, sirens, white coats, hospital, lady in white washing red off little hands, he's crying, "Mommy, where's my Mommy?"
Humid. Sticky with sweat, stale smell in the room. The woman sits on the bed. Sheets rumpled, half off the mattress. Not the same mother? “C’mon. I won’t tell if you don’t.” He's thinking this isn't right, not supposed to do this. But she smells so good, her hair, that curl behind her ear that falls out, maybe its okay, just this once. Gravel crackling under rubber. “Stop, I hear Dad’s truck. We gotta stop, he’ll kill us if he finds out.” She puts her sweater back on. Pulls up her skirt. He zips his pants. She finishes cooking dinner, tucking a spiral tendril of hair behind her ear. He sets the table. He smiles at her. God, she's so pretty. She doesn’t return the smile. She scowls at him. Dirty, he feels so damn dirty. The man stumbles in. Smells of whiskey. Anger. "Boy, what you lookin' at." The boy looks at his shoes. "Nothing Dad, I’m not hungry anymore.” He goes to his room. Finds panties under his pillowcase. He hates her. He wants her dead. Footsteps. Sweating. He stuffs the panties under the mattress. Fakes sleep.
He's a man now. Sees a woman with child. Strokes little boy's hair. Woman walks away. Little boy reaches. “Daddy, want Daddy.” Woman leans in the backseat of the car, wrestles to put the squirming boy in the carseat. Older man in driver's seat. "Get in honey. I'm takin' you to your mother." Rolls down the window, yells "Don't you come near her, I'll call the police, better yet, I'll just shoot ya." Woman looks back, as if apologizing for her father. She mouths “I'm sorry," eyebrows raised, shoulders shrugged. Gets in car. Her daddy drives off. I hate you. You can’t do this to me. You can’t leave me again. Stop leaving me. Woman, heavy, not breathing, lying on the child. Wet, sticky Kool-aid on the floor. Gasping, the child whispers, “Mommy, don’t go. Don’t leave me with him.” Woman, don't leave me. Fingers sweep hair, linger there. He watches. "Don't take my boy. Come back," he mouths, too much emotion for words.
Emma. Standing outside the hospital. She holds someone’s hand. A man. It's him. I hate her. I hate both of them. She’s leaving me. Why do they always leave me. She loves him. That bastard. “Bye, Ronnie, have a good weekend.” Emma sees her own face, hand waving to someone. “Who’s that?” The man says, the man in her arms, he leans to kiss her. She sees him. How can she see his face? She's in his head. How? Pictures flashing. A man, kneeling. Puddle around his knees. "Hail Mary, full of grace, .... Where's Ronnie. I'm sorry Ronnie. Don't leave me here. Don't leave. Why do they always leave me" he murmurs, running out of air. He falls to the floor, cheek on the cold hospital tile floor. The man dies. His son hides, but he sees everything, he hears everything. He runs. Blood still on his hands. Sticky. Running out of the Emergency Room doors. These same doors where he watches Emma. "Bye, Emma, Ya'll have fun this weekend." And under his breath. "I've done it before. I can do it again. You better not hurt her or you'll be sorry. I'll be watching."
Emma felt a jolt of adrenaline. She started to raise both hands, but thought better of it. She feigned an itch, scratched one hand with the other. Returned them to her sides. Poker face, Emma, poker face. More nitrous. He didn't turn it off. Inhale. Another one, deeper. Spinning. More flashes, pictures. A classroom. A notebook. Sketches of Emma, a curl behind her ear. Not Emma’s hair. “I HATE YOU” written in red ink across the face. Emma’s face? Not Emma’s hair. Emma at the white board, transparencies in her hand, speaking to the class. Thoughts race. Don’t leave me. Why do they always leave me? She isn’t going to leave me. I’ll make sure of that.
A woman, young, white labcoat. “Sarah, just do it like this. Keep it on me until you hear six beeps then wake me up. Oh, and Sarah, don’t say my name when you wake me up. Just shake me. Okay. Its really important." She says, “Are you sure this is okay?” Timid woman. They're all that way. Why do I expect it to change? “Just practicing. Finals coming up. You know how she is. Perfection every time. ” There, that did it. She’ll try harder to prove she is strong now. The girl. Gluing electodes. Sleep. “Wake up, Ronnie. Oh, shoot! Sorry.” She shakes him. “It’s time. Wake up.” Sharp pricks, hair pulling. "Ouch. Be easy, that’s my hair you’re pulling out. What do you mean, sorry?” “Sorry, I said your name. I was trying to wake you up and I said your name.” She’s crying. He yells, "You screwed it up. God, you’re useless. What's the matter with you? Didn't you listen? You never listen.” More tears. The girl says “I’m sorry. I forgot. I thought you said it was just practice.” Slap. His palm is stinging. She covers her cheek with her hand, running, the door slams. “Hey, come back. Get these things off o' me. We aren’t finished yet.” They always leave me. Why do they always leave me? Fine, I don’t need you anymore. I'll deal with you later. First thing's first. Time to focus. Alone in the room. This room. Pulling, more pain, electrodes stuck. Too much glue. Damn, she’ll be here in less than an hour. Gotta get cleaned up. There, just a few more.
“Wake up, Emma. It’s time.” Ronnie gently removes the nitrous tube from her face and pries the electrodes off of her scalp. “So, did you find what you were looking for? He’s a sick little puppy, isn’t he? I told you, didn’t I.”
“I guess so. I never knew. No wonder he's so messed up. Well, anyway, let’s get this off my head and get the room cleaned up before everyone comes back. Then I’ll treat you to some coffee and breakfast at the diner.
"What about Paul?"
"If he wakes up before I get home, I’ll tell him I was bringing him breakfast. He loves their omelets. Sounds plausible, don’t you think? Would you believe me?"
“Honestly. No. But I’d have thought you were sleeping around. This might be the lesser of evils. You should just tell him the truth, Emma. You don’t want this on your conscience, do you? It'll eat you up inside. Trust me, I know about guilt.”
“And how do you know so much about guilt?” Emma had to know if her suspicions were correct.
“Are you kidding? My dad was Catholic.” Ronnie let out a nervous chuckle.
“Was? You know what? Don’t answer that. Let’s go get that coffee. I’m buying. Then I'd like to get to know my star pupil. The old fashioned way.”
“Sound’s great. Let’s go. Oh, and don't worry about your computer. I'll put it in your office before I leave. You don't want Paul thinking you took it with you to pick up breakfast. A little suspicious, right?"
"Good point." Emma passed by, stealthily pulling the zip drive out of the computer and slipping it in her pocket as Ronnie was flipping off the lights.
"Here, you forgot this." Ronnie handed Paul's zip drive to her and reached for the door to the lab He held it open as any polite young gentleman would, sweeping his hand toward the open doorway, "After you, Madame."
"Why, thank you, sir."
In the beginning
“She was just two when I was born. But I spoke before her, walked before her, left home without her. You have no idea what that’s like, Ronnie. To live with someone for eighteen years and not know what she’s thinking.”
“Try me, Emma, I was raised by a single mother, heck I dated a few times. Never did know what they thought. Didn’t mean I hooked them up and recorded their dreams without them knowing it.”
“It’s just not that simple, Ronnie.” Emma looked into her coffee cup, and fiddled with the sugar packet. “Do you ever wonder what its like to be trapped in a body that can’t function? To have a need you can’t voice, an itch you can’t reach? What if someone hurt you and you couldn’t speak the words, your hands curled up and useless? Ever watched someone like that? I had to find out if this could be done."
“What about communication boards, Emma. Didn’t the occupational therapy sessions mention that?” She didn’t want to get into this conversation now, not when Paul would be up in a few hours. “Look, Ronnie, forget about tonight. Thanks for helping me with this experiment. I just wanted to know what would come out of dreams by an able bodied, communicative person. Just chalk it up to experience. Why don't you take off a few days for your troubles. I don't know, call it flex time.”
“Can’t buy me off that easy, Emma. I won’t say anything, but you aren’t going to shut me out either. I’ll be back at nine this morning. We need to deal with this. Its my career and you ought to think of yours too for a minute. Your sister hasn’t spoken in over thirty years. Get this thing working the way you want it to and you can try it with her. You screw up now and the whole thing could blow in your face. You know how it is. Oh, sorry, the funds ran out. You'll have to wrap this experiment up. Vacate the lab by, oh, today. If that happened, where would your sister be then, ever think of that?"
As much as Emma had to admit it, he was right. Finding out about Paul was not what this experiment was about. “Fine, I’ll see you in a few hours. Not a word, right?”
“Bout what? Didn’t hear a thing.” He lowered his voice and whispered as he pointed to her jacket pocket, “might want to hide that.” She felt the thin rectangular shaped zip drive in her pocket as she walked out, dropping a twenty on the counter. He said he’d buy but he’s done enough for the night, she thought. Plus, he'd just whip out his debit card and make a paper trail. She didn't need any proof of this crazy mistake.
Emma crept into the apartment and slipped out of her work clothes before crawling into bed. She hoped Paul was still in deep sleep. For once in a long while, she didn’t worry about what he was dreaming. She’d left the zip drive from her pocket in the glove compartment of the car.
More to come-any suggestions are welcomed.