Copyright 2019 by Laura Jenski
“You don’t know anything. You don’t do anything useful. You just get in the way of progress.”
Dr. Caroline Kneezer grabbed her worn parka and pulled it over her wrinkled lab coat as she marched toward the dean’s office door. Under pinched eyebrows, her gray eyes stormed, a perfect match for her prematurely gray hair, which shot like lightning bolts from the knot she had tied at the back of her neck. She halted and snapped her head around when the university administrator replied.
“Professor Kneezer, you cannot experiment on humans simply because you want to. There are regulations that you must follow—”
“I have no intention of filling out those moronic forms and waiting around while your staff of idiots shuffles the papers for months. You won’t do anything to me because the greedy university wants all the grant money I bring in. You can shove those forms up your—”
Caroline’s final word drowned in the thunderous echo of the door she slammed shut. The dean’s secretary, cowering at a desk adorned with poinsettias and holly, hid her face behind a folder until Caroline reached the outer office door. “Merry Christmas,” the woman peeped. Caroline slammed that door too, sending a cascade of paper Santas and plastic elves onto the floor.
With each step back to her medical school research laboratory, Caroline fumed. Why do these underlings—the dean, provost, and other vice presidents—think they can tell her, the smartest researcher in the state and probably the nation, what she could and couldn’t do? She knew best, and she was going to conduct this brain research even if she had to experiment on herself. This promised to be the biggest breakthrough in neuroscience ever, and she wouldn’t be denied the discovery of a lifetime.
Inside her laboratory, three graduate students stood clustered by her office door, coats and hats in hand. Bobbi, the most senior student, now in her second year, spoke first.
“Dr. Kneezer, if it’s okay with you, we’ll be leaving now. We want to get home by dark and it’s snowing really bad north of the Interstate.”
“No, it’s not okay with me. I’m starting the new project today and I’ll need all three of you to collect data.”
One of the other graduate students edged forward but then retreated. “But it’s Christmas Eve,” she said from behind Bobbi’s shoulder.
Caroline bristled. Young people nowadays have no work ethic. When she was a student she worked seven days a week, holidays included, and brought a sleeping bag into the lab so she could work through the night on a regular basis. She didn’t waste time on parties, boyfriends, and movies. That’s how she got to the top of her profession: hard work and unwavering dedication.
“You can’t make us stay,” Bobbi said, a crimson blush racing across her freckled cheeks and up to the roots of her ginger-red hair. “I checked with the dean’s office and Human Resources. Graduate assistants get time off over the holidays like the rest of the employees.”
Caroline ripped off her parka and threw it on a chair in her office. When she turned back to the three students huddled in her doorway, her eyes had darkened to the color of charcoal. “Either you stay and work through the holidays, or you leave and never come back. It’s a rare privilege for a student to be training in my laboratory, and I want only the best…not lazy kids like you. Get out.” She pounced forward and slammed the office door in their faces, waiting until she heard the click of the outer laboratory door before once again emerging.
Although the tirade had felt good—Caroline never tired of seeing trepidation on the faces of students—her rant placed her in a tough situation. If she were to conduct an experiment on herself, she needed help to record the data, but she had, moments ago, banished her only assistants. On Christmas Eve, in a small college town, she was unlikely to find anyone resembling a suitable replacement. Caroline slouched in front of her computer screen. Now what was she going to do?
With an annoying ding, the envelope icon on the computer desktop announced a new email message. Although she normally ignored all incoming messages—she felt that her time was too valuable to spend answering the blathering of lesser people—this message caught her attention. It was news from the Society of Neuroscientists and its subject line was an obituary notice about Martin Jacobson, her former advisor, the only person she thought equal to her own scientific caliber. She clicked on the message.
Martin Lee Jacobson, Ph.D., 70, died at a Houston hospital on December 22, according to a hospital spokesperson. Dr. Jacobson had been in poor health in recent months with an undisclosed illness, and because he had no known next of kin or friends coming forward, no memorial service is planned. The deceased left the following private message for Caroline Ellen Kneezer (click here to login with username and password).
Caroline stared at the screen. Her advisor had died, and without winning the Nobel Prize he so desperately wanted. It seemed so unfair; he had worked like a dog during his entire career, cheating whenever necessary, and stealing ideas from other scientists with great regularity to stay at the head of the researcher pack. A tireless self-promoter, he had claimed many discoveries worthy of a Nobel Prize. Caroline thought the honor would be bestowed on him, deserved or not, in the very near future, but now Marty was dead and would never have the pleasure of wagging the award in the faces of all his angry competitors.
The click here phrase beckoned to her. Marty had left a message for her to read after his death. Perhaps he finally would compliment her on her stellar career, shower her with the accolades he had so stingily withheld while living, and recognize that she was his scientific equal or even his superior…not that she could really hope for such magnanimous behavior from the likes of Martin Jacobson. Regardless, she clicked on the link and logged in to the Society’s private message board.
A black background appeared on her screen, devoid of texture and populated only with white letters in a single paragraph:
Caroline, if you are reading this, then I am dead. During the last few months I have hovered between life and death, been resuscitated several times against my wishes, and finally came to accept that soon there will be nothing left of me but a pile of ashes…and a very expensive alloy dental bridge. During those times that I crossed to the other side and then back again I realized that I will spend eternity paying for my many sins in life. So, my last act on this earth will be to warn you not to follow my path to a wasted life. You are young (young-ish, anyway) and still have a chance to temper your cynical heart. Pay attention to the signs you will see and hear that can lead you to true happiness and a life well lived. Besides, you’ll never win the Nobel Prize, despite what you think. Sincerely, Marty (Martin L. Jacobson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, Fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Neurochemistry)
Caroline closed her internet browser. Marty couldn’t resist one last opportunity to put her down. He thought he was so important…what good is a lifetime achievement award from Latvia, anyway? And what were these signs that he wrote about? Probably a figment of his deteriorating brain.
She shook off the funk and strode into a magnetically shielded room off of the main research lab. There she kept a magnetoencephalographic helmet embedded with miniaturized quantum sensors—cutting-edge technology, custom-made at the University of Nottingham—with which she would measure neural activity by recording her brain’s magnetic fields. But what would she do about the other part of her experiment? Without assistants, how would she deliver precise electrical stimuli to her brain between magnetic field measurements? Caroline sighed. She had only one option, to wear the sensing helmet and stimulating electrodes at the same time.
Caroline programmed a tablet to operate equipment in automatic mode and propped the tablet on a lab bench. She squeezed conducting jelly into her hair and secured the stimulating electrodes before donning the helmet. To cancel the Earth’s magnetic field around the helmet, she turned on electromagnetic coils and slid into the chair between them. A frown narrowed her eyes…the arrangement was not ideal. Stimuli from the electrodes and operation of electromagnetic coils should occur independently…anyone who had taken a course in basic physics knew of the relationship between electrical current and magnetism.
In her left hand she held the remote control. A twinge of misgiving stopped her thumb from pressing the start button. What if the dean was correct, that the experiment was dangerous and needed more review? Perhaps she shouldn’t have sent away her lab assistants. What if Marty had gained real insight on life and had sent a message worth considering? She gave her head a shake, sending the wires into a frenzied dance around her head. Fools; they were nothing but fools. She pressed the start button…
When Caroline regained consciousness and opened her eyes she found herself prone on the lab floor, the chair overturned on top of her. The acrid smell of burnt wires permeated the closed room, and the red alarm indicator on the control panel flashed with unrelenting reproach. Ears buzzing and fingers trembling, she removed the helmet. The wires connected to the stimulating electrodes were charred along their entire length, and it was only the conducting jelly on her scalp that prevented her hair from catching fire. Wobbly, she crawled across the floor and reached for the tablet on the benchtop. The tablet’s screen glowed white except for a turquoise ring spinning in the center of the display.
“Damn it. Did this fail, too?” Caroline sat on the floor with the tablet in her lap, crossed her legs, and leaned her back against the bench. She did the only thing she could think of in her foggy state; she rebooted the tablet.
The white screen disappeared, replaced with a black screen and then a blue screen with animated bubbles. The operating system’s icon, a talking clock, popped onto the screen.
“I’m here to help you, Caroline,” the clock icon said.
“Go to Settings,” Caroline said.
“I’m here to help you.”
“Settings.” Caroline poked impatiently at a button on the face of the tablet.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m here to help you.” Little stick arms appeared on the clock icon and folded on the clock’s nonexistent hips.
“You can help me by going to Settings.” Caroline’s head began to throb…she was arguing with a cartoon.
“I will show you times in your past, back when you thought Christmas was a happy occasion shared with others.”
“What the…” Caroline shook the tablet. She hated to do a hard reset and lose whatever experimental data had been recorded. Before she could touch any controls, the display turned green, and red ornaments flew left to right and top to bottom until a snowy landscape swiped onto the screen. The video zoomed to a house in the middle of a snow-covered farm and focused on a little girl clinging to an older woman’s skirt. “Nana?”
Caroline squinted at the scene, her grandparent’s house in rural Illinois. Red shutters graced the windows and blue flower boxes perched on the sills. She knew the year, 1989. Six years old, she spent Christmas with her grandparents while her parents flew to Asia on business. Her grandpa had made her a little sleigh from a plastic tub and a length of rope. Their dog—she couldn’t remember what type it was, only that it was big and furry and warm—pulled her through the snow.
The clock icon again appeared in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. “You have happy memories of this place?”
“Oh, yes. I spent Christmas with Nana and Gramps every year from the time I was six until I started high school. Nana showed me how to make candy cane cookies and balance a checkbook. Gramps helped me build a radio with parts he picked up from the junk yard and taught me how to ride a horse and climb trees. They loved me, not like my parents who worked all the time and were more interested in money than me.” Caroline bit her lip to stop her rambling and pressed the back of her cranium against the cabinets. The ache in her head now stretched across her forehead and both temples.
“But you don’t see your grandparents anymore?” The clock looked down at its arm as though checking the time on a wristwatch.
“No, they died in a house fire the week before Christmas during my first year in high school. After that I spent the holidays at home, alone, while my parents traveled. Once I went to college, I never returned home again.” She looked again at the video playing on the tablet. A big black dog bounded through the snow drifts and six-year-old Caroline trundled after it, falling and giggling. Her grandmother stood on the porch, smiling. The image faded into a black dot in the middle of the gray screen and the clock icon began to fade as well.
“No, don’t go,” Caroline cried. “I want to see more. I had so many happy Christmases there.”
“There will be other things for you to see and hear.” The clock disappeared.
After sitting for a few stunned seconds, Caroline staggered to her feet and placed the tablet on the benchtop. The display had gone blank and nothing she did brought the picture back. The light coming through the laboratory windows had dimmed considerably as the sun rested lower on the horizon and clouds heavy with moisture rolled in.
“Shit, it’s after four o’clock. I almost missed giving the mice their last dose for the drug project.” Caroline changed into a clean lab coat and put a paper bonnet over hair matted with electrode jelly. She drew the experimental drug into eight syringes, and placebo into eight others, and placed them onto a tray for easy transport. The animal facility was in the next building, connected by a skywalk, so she wouldn’t need to go outside. She left her parka in her office and hustled out the door.
Once inside the animal facility, Caroline fixed paper booties over her shoes, slipped on plastic gloves, and donned a face mask to enter the mouse room. Inside, sixteen mice stared at her, their beady red eyes gleaming against white albino fur. She didn’t like mice; they always seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to bite her. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead, and the mice twitched their little pink noses, taking in the fragrance of her growing anxiety.
“Let’s just get this over with.” Gritting her teeth, Caroline grabbed the first mouse in the experimental group and injected the drug into its peritoneum. It squeaked in protest, twisting, bringing its sharp teeth close to the fingers wrapped around its body. “No you don’t,” Caroline said, dropping the mouse back into its cage. “Next?”
Despite a piercing headache and growing nausea, Caroline administered the drug and placebo and placed the spent syringes into a container for disposal. When she reached for the doorknob to leave the mouse room, a small voice called to her, “We have something to tell you.”
Caroline looked around the room but saw no one.
“Over here, middle shelf.”
She turned, her muscles tense and her knees bent, ready to dash out of the room. One of the white mice in the placebo group had come to the front of the cage and stood on its hind legs, its front claws gripping the bars on the cage lid.
“Dr. Kneezer, we want to tell you how others are celebrating Christmas this year.”
Caroline sank to the floor in front of the rack of cages and, with no will of her own remaining, faced the mouse speaking to her.
“Bobbi, your grad student,” the mouse continued, “is spending the holiday this year with her boyfriend. He’s in law school and they’ve been dating for five years. For Christmas, he’s giving her an engagement ring. Bobbi’s giving him a key to her apartment…and a gift card to Home Depot. His hobby is woodworking, so she figures she’ll get both a husband and a refinished dining room table this year. They couldn’t be happier.”
Caroline’s voice sounded squeaky too. “How do you know this?”
“We know all kinds of things,” said another mouse, this one in the experimental drug group. “Like, we know that you planned to spend Christmas in your office, reading the Journal of Neuroscience Research and revising the federal grant proposal you’ll submit for the February deadline.”
“I have responsibilities,” Caroline said. “I can’t afford to goof off like the students. Science is a demanding profession; it’s a rat race.”
The mice tittered, their laughter bouncing off the painted cement block walls like the tinkle of silver bells. “With those fat asses,” one mouse said, “rats couldn’t win a race against cranberry sauce. If you want speed, ask a mouse.” The laughter reached a crescendo and then dissolved into snickers and the congratulatory tapping of scaly tails.
“What would you have me do?” Caroline stiffened. These were just laboratory mice she was talking to…they knew nothing of the world. “Should I be wasting my time gobbling fruitcake and chugging eggnog while my competitors are honing their grant proposals?”
“The dean invited everyone in the school to his home for a Christmas Day reception. There will be spiked punch and stuffed dates wrapped in bacon.” The mice clicked their incisors in unison, anticipating the delicious taste of fried pig meat. “It will be a jolly time…a chance to see the Chemistry Department chair get snockered on the dean’s expensive brandy and sing ‘O, Tannenbaum’ with a Chinese accent.” Again tails slapped against the bottom of the cages, the rhythm a bit syncopated as more mice crowded to the front.
Caroline pictured the department chair stumbling around the room, warbling and making a fool of himself. A sly smile snuck onto her lips. It would be worth going to the dean’s reception just to see that spectacle. Maybe she could record it on her smart phone and threaten to post it to YouTube the next time the safety officer from the Chem Department complained about unlabeled reagent bottles in her research lab. She shook her head to cast off the deliciously deceitful idea. “Every minute away from the lab is an irreversible loss of valuable research time.”
“Every minute away from the lab is an irreplaceable opportunity to live life.” The mouse stopped speaking and listened while the other mice ceased their movements.
On her wrist, Caroline’s watch emitted six quiet beeps to signify that it was striking the hour, six o’clock. The lights in the mouse room went dark—the start of a twelve-hour dark cycle—and Caroline groped her way along the floor toward the door as the mice scurried around their cages to begin an active night routine. After a few seconds of running her hands along the wall, Caroline found the doorknob and let herself into the hallway. The timer had dimmed all the remaining lights, requiring her to hunt for the hallway leading to the exit door. She made a few wrong turns, disoriented by the drab walls whose color-coding was indecipherable in the dim light. Eventually Caroline found a lit Exit sign and left the animal facility, entering a hallway unfamiliar to her.
The medical school complex resembled a labyrinth, built piecewise over more than a century, with hallways and tunnels connecting stately old structures to sleek new glass-and-steel buildings. Caroline had exited into one of the old structures, on the east end of the complex, far from the new research buildings that housed her office and lab. An indoor route through the tunnels led to the complex’s west side—she had taken it once before, years ago. Through the small, high windows she could see a wall of heavy snow flakes falling. With no coat or warm hat, and smooth-soled loafers on her feet, Caroline had no choice but to find her way through the indoor tunnels back to her office.
The cement on the walls leading down to the old med school basement crumbled under her fingers as Caroline picked her way down the slippery stone stairs. The dampness in the air thickened with each step, and by the time she reached the first basement hallway she labored to draw in the water-logged air. Crooked passageways loomed before her, lit with yellowed bulbs encased in corroded metal cages that cast eerie lines and shadows on the walls and floor. With no windows to orient her, and vision now blurred, Caroline wandered haphazardly through the hallways, past electrical boxes and arrays of hissing pipes, under decaying doorjambs without doors, and past a number of locked rooms. She had lost track of time and space, and felt dizzy from breathing the dense, stale air. If only she could find a staircase up she would brave the elements and walk back to her lab through the snowstorm.
Ahead of her a door stood ajar, and from the room she could hear a Christmas carol being played. Someone was working late in the med school? Caroline hurried forward. Surely that someone could point her to an exit. She pushed open the door, an unconscious grin of hopeful anticipation on her face. Her smile faded when she entered the room.
The compact fluorescent lamps overhead cast an antiseptic pall of blue light around the room, a room that housed the med school’s cadaver donation program. Stainless steel gurneys stood in rows throughout the room, and against the far wall, a dozen stainless steel cabinet doors covered compartments in which cadavers would spend the holidays waiting for the medical students’ return. Amid a sea of steady green indicator lights above the cabinet doors, a flashing red light caught her attention and drew her across the room. Refrigeration Failure read the label under the flashing light. She should call someone to service the refrigeration before the cadaver was ruined. Caroline pulled out her cell phone—no signal. There was no wall phone, and the small desk near the front of the room held only an audio device, now playing an unfamiliar orchestral piece. She circled the room, inspecting the lab benches along the side walls and the shelves above them, but found only rows of closed plastic tubs.
Sinking into the chair at the small desk, Caroline rubbed the back of her neck where pain radiated from her aching head. What was she to do? She doubted whether, if she left this room, she would find her way back here. In fact, she might not be able to find her way out of this maze that was the med school basement. It would be days before someone came here, maybe weeks…at least until the new year. Caroline put her head in her hands, her elbows landing on the desk with a resounding thud. The audio device jumped into static, and then a smooth baritone voice began crooning to the tune of White Christmas.
The flash-ing of a red light bulb
Will tell you what you want to know
Where the fu-ture fits in if you don’t list-en
To hear ’larm bells high and low
Caroline swallowed hard to keep the gastric acid from rising higher in her esophagus. Had she really heard what she thought she heard? Had the singer—he sounded remarkably like Bing Crosby—really directed her to open the cadaver cabinet? She looked across the room; the flashing red light did seem to be beckoning her. With a tentative glide, like she once skated the icy pond at her grandparent’s farm, Caroline crossed the room and placed her hand on the cabinet handle. The audio device began playing Jingle Bells and the harmonious female voices—the Andrew Sisters, Caroline surmised—started to sing:
Open it all the way
She pushed down on the handle and yanked the cabinet door open. Inside, a body lay on the stainless steel shelf, shrouded in a pale blue sheet with dark blue triangles. Caroline had bought a dozen of those sheets for a ridiculously low price at a big box store. Seeing the sheet in the cool blue light, she realized just how ugly the linens really were. The Andrew Sisters launched into another verse:
Lift the sheet
Lift the sheet
Lift it all the way
With trembling hand, Caroline pulled up the sheet from the corpse and then staggered back, a scream caught in her throat. Was that her body on the shelf in the refrigerator unit? The face was much older and the hair completely white, but the resemblance was undeniable. A scar gleamed prominently on the chin. Caroline touched the mark on her face, below her lip, where she had cut her chin during a fall from her grandparent’s apple tree. Under the corpse’s right ear, three moles had grown in a line. Caroline fingered the three bumps under her shirt collar. The coincidence was too great…this had to be her body. She read the donation form taped to the steel gurney: Unclaimed. No family. No friends. A wave of nausea washed over her, and she slammed the cabinet door shut. Across the room, the audio device slipped into static, followed by a tenor singing as the melody of O Little Town of Bethlehem played in the background:
Oh if you want to change your fate
There is still time to try
Cast off the chains of end-less gains
And kiss the grind good-bye
For in the dark you fashion-ed
There shines a gleam of light
That now you would seek out the good
And set your fu-ture right
Caroline heard the voice first, before she could open her eyes and focus. It sounded close, as though the person was in the room with her.
“Ma’am, are you all right? Did you hit your head?”
Her eyes fluttered open. Wet boots, caked with snow, stood a few inches from her nose. The cold floor felt hard against her cheek and she struggled up onto an elbow, surveying the cadaver room from her position on the floor next to the refrigeration units.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Caroline said, gazing up at the campus policeman that towered over her. He had a full white beard and bright blue eyes, and his arms were crossed over a beer-gut belly. “I was trying to get back to my research lab from the animal facility and got lost in the tunnels. I came in here, looking for help.” When the policeman leaned over and hauled her to her feet, she glanced at the audio device now devoid of life. “I guess, in a way, I found the help I needed. Why are you here?”
“The refrigeration malfunction triggered the security software, which sent an alarm to the station. I stopped by to see what I could do and found you on the floor, unconscious. Do you want me to drive you to the emergency room?”
Caroline shook her head, winced, and put a hand up to her aching cheek bone. Soon a bruise would blossom on her face. “If you take me back to my office, I can drive myself home from there.”
The policeman took her arm and led her out of the room and into the hallway. A few yards beyond the cadaver room, he turned a corner hidden in shadows and led them up a staircase and out through the loading dock doors to his squad car. Within minutes they were in the research laboratory building. “If you’re sure you’ll be all right,” he said while Caroline unlocked the door to her lab, “then I’ll continue with my rounds. If you need anything, just call the campus police number and someone will come over.”
“Thanks, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.” As the officer walked away, Caroline called after him with a bidding she rarely spoke, “Merry Christmas.” He waved and with a booming voice wished her the same.
Inside the lab, Caroline tidied up the mess she had made during her ill-fated experiment, and shortly before midnight went into her office to fetch her parka. The envelope icon on her computer flashed at her, signaling a new email message. Exhausted, Caroline rested her hand next to the light switch on the wall, debating whether to read the message or ignore it. If someone sent an email on Christmas Eve, they must need to reach her…she clicked on the icon. The message was from her graduate student Bobbi.
Dr. Kneezer, I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier. You’re right, it is a privilege to work in your lab, and if you’ll take me back, I’ll come in first thing in the morning to catch up on the work I should have done tonight. I’m really sorry. Bobbi
Caroline sank into the chair and pulled the keyboard closer so she could type.
I’m very happy to have you back, and the other students too, but not until January fourth when the university reopens. You have worked hard and deserve a happy holiday with loved ones, and I too look forward to a pleasant break. And Bobbi—congratulations to you and your new fiancé. Merry Christmas. Caroline Kneezer