Maxwell takes the fetal position shivering. He buries most of his face in the rug and hides his head under his thick arms, speaking into The Ganga’s Indian carpet. “This year I spent every dime on prescription opiates.” He glances up at me and shakes his head in self-reproach. “I don’t suppose anybody here’s gone cold turkey off Oxy’s.” He scans us.
Vedanshi and I shake our heads, no.
James looks down silently.
“Opiate withdrawal’s the worst,” Maxwell says. “Your blood’s on fire.” He looks at me. “I’m really sorry, Johanna.”
“Don’t be,” I tell him. “Anyone with ambition is addicted to something. It’s just a matter of what.” I pat him on the shoulder. “I’m addicted to the dream of doing Earth-shaking genetic work in a lab of my own. It drives me into a two-dimensional thing – ideas and deadlines. No life.”
“That’s true,” James says with admiration.
“If you’re talented,” I say to Maxwell, “an obsession feels good for a while. Then you start accomplishing things, and one by one your goals ring hollow. You make bigger plans, raising the dose, but it’s temporary. No one understands you. Even the people who understand your work don’t know you as a person.” I look at James. “Remember how Dad would say, ‘Nothing kills your dreams like reaching them?'”
“Yeah… I never did get that,” James says.
“Nobody knows who you are when you’re an addict.” I jostle Maxwell’s right shoulder. “The substance makes no difference. You taught me that, coming in early all those mornings and making me have normal conversations with you.” I slap the back of his head gently, but he doesn’t look at me. “I owe you. For that and for rescuing me this morning. You should be proud of who you are. Risking your life like that. Not many people are as brave and caring as you are.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” he says. “I’m not afraid of the ocean because I surf in it. I jumped in hoping I had a chance with you.”
“You mean, dating?” Stupid question.
“Yeah.” He looks up apologetically. “That was before this happened.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small plastic bag of jade pills.
“Good man,” James says. “It would have been easy to pop one of those and stay hidden.” James grins at me and says, “Kowabunga.” He worries because I’ve never had a boyfriend.
And wow, I thought I was mission work to Maxwell. Save-a-geek, or something. “I like junkies,” I say to him, taking the bag of pills from his hand. “Your addiction doesn’t change what I think of you. Mine never bothered you. Not a bit.” I raise a crooked eyebrow at James. Maybe there’s hope for me. Socially, I mean. “But I got to say,” I tell Maxwell, “I’m surprised you believe in the disease model of addiction. I sure don’t. I don’t think the data supports the model.”
“What data?” Maxwell asks.
“Most addicts quit on their own. It’s a suppressed fact. When you define yourself as a disease victim, your addiction stats get worse – according to my reading, anyway.”
“That’s not what I was taught in school.” Maxwell sits up, folds his arms and rubs his shoulders with trembling hands. “But I’d feel sheepish trying to argue about it in this condition.”
“Good,” James says. “I’ve seen guys give up right where you’re at. ‘Cause hell, it’s a disease.” He throws up his hands. “Oh-well, I’ve got a disease. Nothing I can do about it.” He sticks an imaginary straw up his nose and inhales.
I never realized James knew about drugs. “Do that again,” I tell him. “With a Scottish accent.” I find myself smiling at him with this love that overpowers me no matter what he does.
He gives Maxwell a dangerous look. It’s scary how James’ eyes can get so dark. “It’s easy to believe you got an incurable disease,” he says. “It feels kind of natural. But try believing some supernatural dude’s going to cure you. With holy magic.” He looks at Vedanshi. “Every year of my life I get a new science teacher preaching how primitive and dumb people used to be back when everyone believed in God. Then I run into a real problem and it’s all different. Some 12-step guy’s in my face saying, ‘Hey kid, remember that god delusion? Guess what? You’re going to die if he doesn’t save your diseased ass.'”
“James,” Vedanshi whispers and puts an index finger under her chin. “God has to hide and work through coincidence. Otherwise we’d be afraid of displeasing him. There would be no honest talk, no knowledge of ourselves, no free will, and no true love.” She unzips her purse, pulls out her green cylinder and starts to hand it to Maxwell, but stops. Her eyes widen at the morphing symbols on its surface. “My God, Johanna! You have a circulating clone!”
“Acute Monocytic Leukemia,” I blurt out. “I’ve got a month or two, maybe. I’m trying to skip denial.”
Tears well up in Vedanshi’s eyes. They run down her cheeks and fall off the edges of her angled jaw. One finds the carpet, rounds up and stands beside me. I look out at the Great Pyramid. The Japanese half of me is unafraid to die. The Jewish half – I don’t know, honestly. A Coptic Christian pathologist told me that the Jews built the Giza Pyramids. She was sure. But why does that seem relevant now?
“You can fix her, can’t you?” James asks Vedanshi. “With that green thing?”
She closes her eyes for a moment. “There could be a medical suite on the Easter Island base. I haven’t seen all the rooms yet. But I wouldn’t know how to operate the equipment. Or how to fix it if it doesn’t work.” She wipes her eyes with her wrists and looks at me blinking. “Let’s get you into the River. You need to learn everything we knew about leukemia.”
Giza’s transcendent pyramids shrink beneath us and the Earth begins to turn. Russia slides under and Siberia grows.
“I know a place where the magnetic field was a standing toroid,” Vedanshi says.
The Earth blurs then refocuses. We’re facing a cliff of geometric rock.
Maxwell fumbles with his boots, lying on his right side. He wants a chance with me? Nobody like him ever gave me a look.
Except this one guy in my General Physics class at the University of Hawaii. But it turned out he only wanted my help, not my love. Boy, did I help him. He changed majors before I was done tutoring him. Before he was done using me. I stayed in my room most of the week he dumped me, agonizing over the cold brutality of the word, “friends.” Of course, he was seventeen and I was ten. What did I expect?
“Can you make him feel better?” I ask Vedanshi.
“Oh, sorry,” she says and hands Maxwell the cylinder. “Press it to your forehead and you’ll go to sleep. Epigenetic changes happen during withdrawal. They make you crave the drug, so we’ll fool your body into thinking you’re not withdrawing. I can let you sleep through everything as long as you don’t snore. The Ganga can’t tolerate snoring.”
“I don’t snore,” he says. The cylinder has so many symbols on it, it’s almost black now. He takes it, thanks Vedanshi and looks at me. “You thought you were as good as dead. That’s why you tried to drown yourself.” He sits up, scooches next to me and takes both of my hands in his. “If these people built a flying machine that hates snoring, they also found a cure for every type of leukemia. That’s a given. Once you learn what they knew, you’ll use the knowledge better than they did. I guarantee it.”
“Thanks,” I tell him. “I appreciate your assumptions.” My fingers feel strange. It’s like direct current is flowing from his hands into mine.
“I’ll help you,” he says. “I’m not sure how, but I’ll bring you food and water if nothing else.”
“You’re not a water boy,” I tell him. “You’re a brilliant clinical scientist.”
“A brilliant junkie.” He squints in pain. “You’re the last person on Earth I would have chosen to see me like this. Of all the people to disappoint…”
“You haven’t disappointed me.” The idea feels upside-down and backwards as my fingers touch the side of his rugged face. “You saved my life. I’ll save yours. I’ll find a safer addiction for you to worry about.” I put the bag of pills in my shirt pocket. “I might even let you to ask me out. As long as you abandon this lame disease model. I hate learned helplessness, Max. It’s the overall harmony, the inspiration, the connecting thread and the subtext of every government school class I’ve ever taken.”
“The overall harmony?” He laughs.
“That’s my definition of inspiration. Don’t knock it.” I like the way he calls me out.
“But you’re sure addiction’s not a disease?”
“Pretty sure,” I tell him. “Multiple genes are involved. Widely diverse genes. But addiction is an acquired taste if you ask me.”
“Listen to her, dude,” James says.
“Nothing’s black and white in genetics,” I say to Maxwell. “The relationship between DNA and the mind may be inherently incomprehensible. If it is, it’s designed that way for a reason.”
Maxwell shivers. “I better do this,” he says. He lets my hands go, puts one end of the cylinder against his forehead and lies down.
Vedanshi presses her palms together in front of her face, bows her head for a moment, then looks at me. “You need months of progress in days. Just like I did. Take the lotus position and hold your breath for ten heartbeats.”
I do as she says, sensing her power. No doubt it comes from being raised by a queen to become a queen.
“Good,” she says. “When you’re done with that, breathe slowly. Full breaths in a constantly changing pattern. Make a decision about each breath. We want variably increased CO2 tension to open your prefrontal blood flow.” She inhales with a growl. “We should be in water. Nothing triggers the mammalian diver’s reflex like total submersion.”
“I barely swim,” I tell her.
“You wouldn’t need to swim. But close your eyes now, and listen to this old wall. See if you can sense it.”
I’m not going to tell her that scientists call this thing a natural formation. It’s embarrassing.
“When I was three,” Vedanshi says, “my father brought me here to see if I could sense the bending of the magnetic field. The wall was less weather-beaten. Twice as tall, I think, but I was a toddler so everything was huge.” She closes her eyes. “I want you to take a deep breath and hold it for fifteen heartbeats this time.” She opens her eyes and looks over at James. “I think this wall was constructed in the era right before mine. The one that ended in thermonuclear holocaust.”
“They had those bombs back then?” James asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer. “Weird.” He folds his legs. “So would you guys mind if I try to do what you’re doing? Max is crashed out. My money says he snores very soon.”
“Join us,” Vedanshi says brightly. “Maybe you’re a pilot. Your head’s nice and full in the back.” She pats the back of her own head, giggles, then sits tall with her eyes closed. “If you’re seeing ones and zeros, imagine they’re falling into your head and lining up on the base of your skull.”
I close my eyes and it’s raining ones and zeros. I let them stand on either side of my sella turcica, but they heap up.
“The time-space portion of the true self is a Planck’s volume of conscious awareness,” Vedanshi says, “like the tiniest spark moving nonlocally through the brain. If you could see it, it would look like a cloud because of its rapid movement. The cloud shifts and changes like a ghost. Brighter spots are decisions and feelings. Softer areas are things like physical movements involving the parietal cortex and cerebellum, usually. When you’re awake, all your neurons are in the same place relative to the true self. But when you’re asleep, nonlocality vanishes. So there’s no free will in dreams.”
I try to decode the layers of ones and zeros in my head, but there’s no hope.
“Imagine the suffering of a five year-old boy in a cold orphanage,” Vedanshi says. “Sores cover the roof of his mouth. Memories of his mother’s warmth and gentle voice keep him awake. The cloud of your awareness extends up into your mirror neurons and down to the limbic system, bringing the boy’s suffering into you. You can feel things as he does.”
“Poor little guy,” James says.”
“When another person’s pain matters to you as much as your own,” Vedanshi says, “it’s nonlocal love. You’ve discovered it. This is humanity’s highest calling, and God’s remedy for self-sabotage.”
“Does everything have to be religious?” James says.
“Actually, God isn’t religious,” she says. “He didn’t say anything religious when we spoke. He doesn’t worship a higher power or cower in fear of punishment. He does what’s right because it is right, and he suffers with us because he’s full of nonlocal love.”
I hope she’ll tell us her story. Researchers estimate that 13 million adults have had near-death experiences in the US alone. If Maxwell wasn’t a fast runner, I might have seen the white room myself this morning.
In the white room with black curtains near the station.
Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings…
…As I walked out, felt my own need just beginning.
“The Ganga’s afraid you’ll think I’m crazy,” Vedanshi says to me.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Near death enlightenment isn’t rare these days. Scientists actually study it.”
“No kidding?” she says. “I’ll bet they studied it in my day, too. And kept their findings locked away from young people.” She leans forward and touches the top of her head to the carpet in front of her crossed legs. She stretches her arms out behind her back then raises them like wings. “Now, if you’ve got any numbers, let the code lie there. Don’t try to sort it or understand it. It must understand you.”
As I stare at golden zeros and ones, they change from Arabic numerals to symbols I haven’t seen as numbers. The ones look like vertical shepherd’s crooks and the zeros are fancy commas. I hold my breath and suddenly it’s as if I’m looking through someone else’s eyes at a pair of aged hands. I recognize Vaar’s signet ring on her right middle finger. I hear her voice saying she doesn’t intend to do what I told her. She’s calling someone on a phone. A large crater appears, full of huge machines. Two of them are shaped like UFO’s. The sky is black. Shadows are harsh. It’s the surface of the moon. It must be. I recognize the dust.
M. Talmage Moorehead
Personal note to fiction writers…
I’ve been lacking discipline during my interstate move, so a couple of days ago I started James Patterson’s course on fiction writing. He’s had 19 consecutive number one NY Times best sellers, as I recall.
So far, I’ve merely listened to him talking about his process on video. Inspirational. I wrote all day today, noticing a new sense of freedom and energy.
Patterson, like Stephen King, derives happiness from writing. But unlike King, Patterson uses “outlines” extensively and considers them essential to avoiding “writing himself into a corner,” (i.e. creating a problem that can’t be logically solved and therefore requires writers to abandon months of writing, a phenom that happens a lot to me because I don’t stick to my outlines), avoiding boring chapters, and creating more interesting twists by allowing greater flexibility ahead of the actual writing.
I’ve always agreed with the proponents of outlines and envied them because my characters ignore mine. But I’m not giving up. Partly because of this…
An eye-opener for me was reading the thing he calls an “outline.” It’s actually an informal, modestly detailed synopsis of each chapter. The kind of thing I could struggle to do after writing a chapter, but wouldn’t attempt before writing it.
His course includes a complete final “outline” of his novel, Honeymoon. He does three to six re-writes of an outline before beginning the writing. He says a person should be able to tell if it’s a good story by reading the outline. I wouldn’t have believed it, except that I read his outline and found it to be true. The outline was hard to put down.
Imagine the implications.
Obviously, I can’t make a final judgement for you on Patterson’s course until I finish it. But preliminarily I’d have to say that just hearing Patterson’s brief videos has been worth my 90 bucks. It was exactly what I needed right now.
By the way, I’ve got no conflict of interest to disclose. I wish I did. I wish I knew the guy.
The above story starts here.
My humble and yet infallible e-book, “Writing Meaningful Page-turners,” is here.
Please email my URL: http://www.storiform.com to your favorite aunt or uncle.
Thanks for everything! Keep writing. You were intelligently designed for it.