For the Love of Green

The physics building was probably built in the fifties. It was functional, just, and had an old musty smell. She took an elevator and pressed the button for the seventh floor. It shuddered as it started to rise upward. The safety notice said it could hold 15 people, but she doubted it. The doors slowly opened, and she almost ran out in relief. Door 721 looked like an office not a lab. Trembling a little, she knocked lightly on the door. There was no reply. She knocked louder. Still no answer. She took out her cell. Perhaps she was early--she did that sometimes when she was nervous. 8:30 am. She was on time. She re-read the text message and cursed.  Lab 127 not 721. She headed back to the elevator. Not trusting it, she took the stairs.

            The lab door was open.  She’d expected a balding man in a lab coat, but this guy looked to be her age or thirty at most. He was tall and skinny and had a mop of red hair.

            He smiled. “Cassie?" She nodded. "Welcome to the neuro lab, home to future Nobel Prize winners.” He pulled out a folder from a filing cabinet. “Let’s quickly review your forms.” He scanned the pages. “Sophomore. You didn’t state your major.”

            “Undeclared.”

            “Hmmm,” he said as he penciled it in. “Try science.” He looked at her expectantly. “It’s the way to fame and fortune.”

            “And you’re going to win a Nobel Prize?” She rolled her eyes.

            “Maybe. I was knocked out by my best friend when I was seven, and after that, I knew what I wanted to be.”

            “Really. You're saying a hit on the head, and you knew what you wanted to be for the rest of your life?”

            “Well, Rob accidentally hit me with a baseball bat, and I had a weird concussion for a week afterwards. I swear to god I could speak Korean, and then overnight I forgot it all.”

            “I may be a lowly, undeclared student, but I’m not stupid.”

            “Sorry. Anyway, true story, I knew I wanted to study the human brain. And today I’ll study yours.”

            A student walked out of a room at the back of the lab. “Hey Brian, you know you sound like a serial killer.”

            “Very funny, Beth.”

            Cassie thought Beth had a point, but she needed rent money. She suppressed a surge of rage, recalling how Dave had left her for her now ex-best-friend. He had refused to help pay any rent on their room.

            Beth pulled up a chair and motioned for Cassie to sit down. “It’s his feeble attempt at a pickup line. Ignore him, Cassie.”  She looked more professional than Brian. She wore a white lab coat, and her long brown hair was tied back neatly in a ponytail. “Did you bring your copy of your notarized waiver form from legal affairs?”

            Cassie fumbled in her bag. “Here it is.”

            “Cassie, I’m in the nursing program. I’m here to take some basic measurements. I need to measure your weight, height, temperature, and blood pressure before Brian starts his experiment. After the experiment, I’ll re-measure your blood pressure and temperature, and if everything is normal, you'll be free to go. The whole thing should take less than two hours. Are you ok with that?”

            “I’m fine with it.”

            “Relax,” Brian said, still grinning like a Cheshire cat.  “It’s not brain surgery, just a little manipulation experiment. Totally harmless. Did you read the leaflet telling you what to expect?”

            “I did. You’ll trick my brain into thinking red things are green and vice versa.”

            “Exactly. We sit you in a nice comfy chair in a Faraday Cage to shield you from stray electromagnetic radiation, and then target specific areas of your brain with low energy rapid pulse signals. Pharmaceuticals are so last century. Electroceuticals, no pun intended, are the wave of the future. Some people are going to get very, very rich.  I plan to be one of them!” He sat on a lab bench and kicked his legs idly. “Beth also has to shave your head for the contact points. There are twenty-four of them. Some people prefer to have their whole head shaved. Others like the checkerboard look. We give you a woolly hat to keep your head warm in either case. What would you like?”

            “Whole head.”

            “Good choice.”

 

            Cassie returned to her apartment, a room in what was once a thriving hotel and was now a slowly decaying cheap student rental. She locked her door and threaded the thin security chain into the latch. Instinctively, she checked that the blue painter’s tape blocking the peephole was secure. She didn’t want any pervs spying on her.

            She climbed into bed. Exhausted and on autopilot, she reached for the razor blade that was under her pillow. She held it by its blue taped edge and tilted it so that the edge glinted in the light, a cold edge suitable to deal out punishment with surgical precision. Today, there was no need. She felt good and simply placed it on the comforter. She took a wad of $20 bills out of her pocket and smoothed them out. She counted $500, then wrapped them around the razor blade and put both back under her pillow. To participate in the trial, she had worn boot cut jeans to hide three sets of ankle weights that would ensure she was not rejected for being underweight. She had explained away the multitude of thin scratches as due to her SPCA volunteer work in a feral cat catch, fix, and release program. Beth had not questioned it. Was that because of her convincing story, or their need for test subjects, or the fact that Cassie dressed in clothes from Goodwill and looked like someone desperate for money?

            She removed the ankle weights, lay back, and closed her eyes, hoping the results of the experiment had worn off. The flashing square that switched rapidly between red and green was still there. Brian had not mentioned the flashing square. That morning he had spent an age adjusting the positions of electrode pads on her shaved skull. Then he made her stare at a red square on a piece of paper while he made measurements, and  then closed her eyes to see if she saw a green square. When she had confirmed this, he asked her to repeat the experiment, but this time he fired what he called his electroceutical gun. He did this over and over. She could still hear him saying keep your eyes closed, not long now. Until, finally, it worked. He tested her by asking her to describe a series of images and had laughed when he told her she had passed with flying colors. Beth gave her a pink woolly hat and thanked her for her participation. Cassie had turned to say goodbye only to see Brian welcoming the next student volunteer.  He was just like Dave.

            It had been weird walking to class and seeing red trees, red grass, red bushes, green flowers. At first she had found it funny, even delightful, but now she found it mildly nauseating. She just wanted to see normally. Brian had told her that one experiment he did last year made a bunch of students eat onions after sending signals to their brains that told them it tasted sweet like doughnuts. That would have been a better and low-calorie way to earn $500. She felt her scalp, already she had a little stubble. Maybe her hair would grow back quickly.  Anyway, it had been falling out a lot recently, so it needed a fresh start.

            Mr. Purr, a long-haired Maine Coon, climbed on the bed and gently batted her cheek with his paw. She feigned sleep. With claws partially out, he prodded her with more enthusiasm. She laughed and got up. Her mini fridge had some wilting red celery and an open can of cat food. She spooned some meat onto a saucer. The meat had a green tinge. She sniffed it, and it smelled fine. The color was the result of the experiment. As she reached down to place the saucer on the floor, Mr. Purr reached up. She flinched; his eyes were blood red like a cat from a horror movie. It was worth $500 she told herself.

            Her cell phone rang.

            “Hi Cassie, this is Beth. I’m just checking that you're feeling fine.”

            “I’m still seeing red and green swapped.”

            “You're a special case.  Some people take longer for the brain to switch back. Can you come in tomorrow around ten to see Prof. Abbott?”

            “Not Brian?”

            “Prof. will want to take the new data.”

            “I have class.”

            “Cassie, he’ll pay you $200.”

            “Done!”

            “Great. See you tomorrow. And, remember none of this is permanent or harmful.”

            Cassie put her phone back in her pocket. “More cash Mr. Purr.  Let’s celebrate. I’ll buy tuna for you and vodka for me.”

 

            Cassie slid the security chain back in place and checked the blue tape on the peephole.  She took a bottle of Crystal Head vodka out of a brown paper bag and waved it in Mr. Purr’s direction.

            “The really good stuff. And, I’ll make a skull lamp when it's empty.”

            Mr. Purr was only interested in the tuna. He jumped off the bed when he heard the can open. She placed a bottle of diet cola, the vodka, a tall glass, and a plastic bowl filled with olives on a tray. Retrieving the razor blade from under her pillow, she headed to the bathroom. While the bath filled, she lit her candles, selected an album to listen to on her phone, and downed a double shot of neat vodka in two gulps. The next shot she mixed with diet cola. She placed the tray on a chair by the bathtub and eased herself slowly into the hot water.  She launched the bowl of olives in the water and lay half floating, listening to her music.

            After a while she let out some water and topped up her bath. The one thing the apartment had in abundance was hot water. She poured another drink. The olives were still bobbing along, untouched in their bowl.  She picked up her razor blade. Bad girl for drinking so many calories. She drew a thin line across her forearm. It stung. The blood beaded up, producing a string of emerald green gems.  She licked the largest bead. It still tasted like iron. Fascinated, she squeezed her arm and stared at the freshly formed beads. She had never seen such beauty in her body before. 

            She slugged down some more vodka, then she drew another line, not for punishment, but out of curiosity. It also stung. Would it sting, she wondered, if she cut herself under water. She carved a long line on her thigh. A small cloud of green billowed out from her leg, no pain attached. She added other lines to make a majestic green fir tree. She added a river and clouds, an eagle soaring high. Beautiful she thought. She wrote the word red on her leg and laughed.  She drew a picture of her cat, Mr. Purr, across her belly, cutting a little deeper than normal. I am an artist, she thought. She licked an olive and placed it next to the carved image of Mr. Purr. That’s what I’ll do with the extra cash, she thought. I’ll have a tattoo of Mr. Purr chasing a red balloon across my stomach. 

            She moved her hands to create gentle ripples in the calm green water. The olive boat bumped back and forth against the side of the bathtub. The candles burned low as she slowly, and surely, without pain or fear, drifted towards oblivion.

Sarah Unger is an astronomer by day and a writer by night, though the two are interchangeable. This is her first publication.