Side Effects May Include

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The Trial Begins

Everything was like a whirlwind once I had breached the inner sanctum. I was ushered into a curtained cubicle and instructed to strip down to my bra and panties so that the – thankfully, female – nurse could inspect every square inch of my body while I stood spread eagle in the middle of the space. She shone a pen light in my ears, eyes, nose and mouth, making vague uh-hmmm noises in her throat as she did so. I had never felt more exposed in my life as I tried to remember the last time I’d cleaned my ears and blown my nose. The only saving grace was that she requested neither a rectal exam nor my weight.

When she was done, she pressed a stamp to my hand and told me to dress and follow the arrows on the floor to the next section. There, I was given a vaccine and a bottle of chewable vitamins. Maybe it was a vitamin trial after all.

Next I was lead to a small office containing only a desk, a laptop and one chair on either side of the desk. Oh, and a skinny man in blue scrubs who reminded me of praying mantis. He used his incredibly long arm to gesture to the spare chair in invitation and then swiftly remove the application from my fingers.

“You understand that by agreeing to this trial you are subjecting yourself to the possibility of potentially embarrassing or temporarily debilitating side effects and in so doing waive your right to take legal action against the University of Romdan for any such occurrences?” he questioned in a bored monotone.

I blinked hard, twice, processing his words at a much slower pace than usual, simply because I had been expecting a series of click to come from his mouth rather than actual words. “I understand,” I carefully.

“Do you have any pre-existing medical conditions that require medications that could possibly interfere with the workings of the drugs you are agreeing to trial for us?” he asked, sounding no more thrilled.

Crossing one leg over the other, an idea occurred to me and I decided to have a little fun with him. I pegged him for a volunteering intern, barely equipped with the necessary knowledge to do what he’d been appointed to do. And he had clearly been asking the same question with the same standard answers all day, so what would he do when presented with a rare – made up – disorder? “I have Klutsism,” I said seriously, managing to keep a straight face as he blinked up at me. He was actually confused by my statement. Score one to me.

“I, uh,” he murmured, looking between me, his laptop and the door. “I don’t know what that is.”

Shaking my head, I explained, “It’s a disorder that affects many parts of my body.” He nodded his understanding, tenuous though it may be, typing quickly into the computer. As I watched, he raised his mantis hand and waved me on, silently requesting more information. “It mainly manifests in my inner ear, my eyes and feet,” I said, spinning out the lie. More nodding, I could practically see his mind reeling from all this information. Probably, he was going to try and use this for his next assignment and then personally track me down with angry, hateful words when he realised I’d made the whole thing up.

“What are the symptoms?” he asked with much more animation in his voice now. He shoulders were curved forward and there was a crease forming between his brows.

“I lose my balance easily,” I listed. “I tend to not see things until the last moment, causing me to run into them. I trip over my feet a lot.” I paused a moment, as if considering the information. “I suppose it just makes me overall accident prone.”

Finally looking up from the screen as I stopped talking, he asked, “Are you on any medication for this condition?”

Suppressing a smile, I leaned forward in my chair, resting my elbows on my knees. “Nope,” I informed him, popping the p at the end.

“Alright,” he said, standing and picking up a yellow marker which he then used to highlight a small empty box at the top of my application. He then selected grey marker and instructed me to hold out my stamped hand where he wrote the word yellow just above the ink. “Please proceed to the end of the hall and enter the lecture hall located on the left hand side of the corridor. Dr. Steinburg will be through shortly to begin orientation on the first batch of volunteers. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Once out in the hall, I checked that I was alone before doing a spastic little happy dance, celebrating the fact that I – and presumably, Dodge as well – had been accepted into the program and was going to be able to pay my bills in full this month. My eyes were shut, my head thrashing from side to side, sending my rampant curls in a crazy little dance of their own, when my shin collided with a chair that had been left in the hall. Biting my lip to keep from crying out in pain, I quickly strode down the corridor and pushed through the heavy wooden doors to reveal large lecture theatre beyond, complete with tiered seating, large white boards and a handful of people scattered throughout the first ten rows of seats.

I scanned the unfamiliar faces carefully one by one before finally locating Dodge, slumped in the middle of the tenth row. It was very unlike him to slouch so much, so I could only assume he was less than happy about the fact that he’d made it through. I, on the other hand, had to suppress another ill-fated happy dance as I bounded up the stairs to join him.

Dodge had been my best friend since the eighth grade when he’d picked me up out of a mess that had previously been known as my lunch, until I tripped and it decided to jump up and hit me in the face and chest. He’d taken one look at my stained t-shirt and handed me his jacket to wear.

It had been best friends at first rescuing, but of course, even back then we’d constantly been mistaken for being romantically involved. This was okay, given the constant bullying the openly gay kids received.

Plopping down in the seat next to him, I tried to wipe the excited grin off my face, but it just wasn’t happening. For the next couple of weeks I wasn’t going to have to worry about money. I was getting decent hours at work, and with this extra five hundred in each of our pockets, we might actually be able to afford name brand cheese for a change.

I leaned over, propping my elbows on the crazy little half-desk thing attached to Dodge’s chair, trying to hide the grin that was fighting to reach my lips.

“Stop looking so happy and adorable,” he grumbled at me, tugging one of my wayward curls roughly. “I’m trying to be mad at you.”

“You’ll never guess who was behind me in line,” I stated, trying to distract him from his attempted hate. I’d lived through enough of his petty anger to know that if I wanted to leave the apartment unscathed ever again, I needed to steer him away from the negative feelings he was conjuring up.

Once, I had accidentally turned his favourite white shirt pink in the wash because I hadn’t adhered to his racist colours-whites separation rules and he’d glared at me non-stop for two weeks. It was the most unnerving fourteen days of my entire life.

“George Clooney?” he guessed, perking up a little.

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Dodge. George Clooney needs five hundred bucks, so he’s selling his body to science.” With a sigh, he slouched back down, directing a hateful stare at the front of the room. “It was the unicyclist,” I told him in a what are the odds? tone of voice. “He was right there in line for the drug trial!”

At this announcement his head snapped around to pin me with his stormy grey eyes. “You mean the unicyclist who knocked you over, warranting the trip to the doctor’s office where you found the flier for this very drug trial which you insisted I participate in with you?” he questioned quickly.

I nodded in reply, my hopes rising that he would enjoy such a coincidence as much as I did.

“I hate him,” he stated flatly, returning his eyes to the front.

And there went my hopes, plummeting to the ground and beyond like a meteor crashing into the earth from outer space and digging itself a large crater to hole up in.

Admitting temporary defeat, I turned back around to sit properly in my seat and await the beginning of orientation in silence.

*

The break room at work was pretty much empty an hour later as we entered with salads so full of health they cause a shudder of disgust to run down my spine. There was too much green leafiness in my plastic bowl for my liking. And not a single gram of the fatty faux meats I loved so dearly. While Dodge carried the bag to the small table in the corner near the kitchenette, I made a beeline for refrigerator and my stash of sliced pepperonis. I also grabbed my secret bottle of full fat, high calorie salad dressing from the back of the shelf where it lay hidden behind all its low fat counterparts.

Hiding food in the fridge was frowned upon, especially by Dodge, who had to deal with me doing it at home as well at work – the amount of times he’d thrown out my sugary treats when I wasn’t looking was truly distressing – but I just could not exist on a diet of rabbit food and bird seed. I needed the least healthy option on the menu and if there was nothing unhealthy in building, I was pretty sure I’d die.

Dodge showed his health diligence by ignoring me as I doctored up my salad until it was almost as bad for me as my usual meals. At least I could pretend it was unhealthy. When I was finished, he erected a barrier between our bowls so that a) he couldn’t see my blasphemy (out of sight, out of mind and all that jazz) and b) my abomination could not infect his pristine vegetable patch in a bowl. It was as if its very presence on the same as he was eating would add inches to his waist; which I had to admit I often fantasised about.

At the very end of the orientation talk the medical staff had split the twenty or so people gathered in the lecture hall into groups based on the colour the praying mantis intern had scribbled on our hands in order to hand out our drugs. It turned out that there were several different drugs they were testing out in this trial and the rather invasive ordeal we’d had to endure before making it to the lecture hall was them deciding which drug we were best suited for.

Dodge and I had been split up, and as such I had been dying to ask what kind of drug he’d been given since we met up again outside the Medical Sciences building. I thought it might be best, however, to wait until he had been placated by the soothing sensations of salad.

“So what did you get?” I asked casually.

Concentrating on his food as he forked another mouthful in, he silently reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pill bottle that on first glance looked almost identical to the one I had received. Around my latest wad of substandard food stuffs, I read aloud from the label on the side.

“Increases Stamina,” I announced. “That should be good for you. You’re always saying how you wish you could get more out of a day. Now you can. If you have more stamina you get more done, right?”

Rolling his eyes, he tapped on the bottle still in my hand, indicating that I should keep going.

“Take one pill four times a day immediately after food.” Nothing seemed out of place there, so I moved to the next section. My interest peaked when I saw the bold lettering of the words Warning! Side effects may include. I had to check my glee as I began to list the horrible and occasionally not so horrible things that could happen to Dodge from taking this experimental medication. “Rashes, Bloating, Athlete’s Foot, Hair Thinning, Unexplained Cravings, Impaired Depth Perception, Excessive Body Odour, Insomnia, Split Ends, Extra Limbs, Mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Cramps, Hair Growth.”

I couldn’t help it, by the time I was finished reading the list, I could barely sit up straight because of the laughter convulsing my frame. The thought of Dodge suffering through any of these side effects was just too rich for words. Dodge, who was always so meticulous about his personal appearance, could be a rashie, bloated and smelly OCDer for the duration of the program. I was so excited.

“It’s not funny,” he grumbled, snatching the bottle off me and stuffing back in his pocket. “You have no idea how much this could kill my reputation with the guys at the gym.”

“Okay, okay,” I gasped, at last gaining control over myself and reaching into my handbag to hand him my own bottle of pills. “Here, make fun of mine.”

Before he could so much as open his mouth, Emily, the communications manager, poked her head around the doorjamb.

With her blonde hair pulled back into a perpetual bun, her crisp white blouses tucked into her high waisted pencil skirts and her sensible heels, Emily reminded me of a less frumpy high school headmistress. Always perfectly groomed and professional looking. Add to this the permanent attachment that was her hands free earpiece and the PDA that was practically glued to her hand, and she was quite possibly one of the most imposing and authoritative people I had the pleasure of being friends with.

And she was always in the loop.

Anything that was said through the official company communication lines was submitted to her inspection in some way. Whether it was transmitted directly into her ear, such as the case was with the walkie-talkies that were used between team members when carrying out operations, or forwarded to her email as were all company emails and transcripts of every single phone conversation. How she found enough time to read it all was beyond me, but if there was something going on, she knew about it. Emily was like God.

Or Santa Claus.

“Just a heads up,” she announced. “The Squad is on their way back from a sting. They were talking about grabbing food.”

The Squad was made up of burly men employed for the express purpose of bullying others into complying with the law. A morally ambiguous group, they had been known to threaten extreme harm to close family members, and if the rumours were true, carry out those threats, in order to get their way.

Not to mention they were cocky as all get out.

It was a well known fact that if you required the use of your dignity, it was best to clear the corridors when their arrival was imminent. If they discovered you in their path, they would take great pleasure in challenging you to a recap of your day so that they could shame you with the retelling of their latest adventure before reefing your underwear up over your head and hanging you from the lighting fixtures.

Okay, so they didn’t really do the wedgie thing, but it was well within their character if this was middle school.

Lucky for us mere computer monkeys, though, we had Emily to sound the warning. We didn’t do too well at fire evacuations, but yell, “Squad Incoming!” and we were squared away at our desks, out of sight within thirty seconds.

I was in motion before I’d even fully processed her words, slinging my handbag over my shoulder and snatching up my lunch on my way to the door. Dodge was right on my heels as we made our way from the break room a short way down the hall to the office. As we settled into our desks, Emily hurried past, spreading the word throughout the office workers. I’d just renewed my eating efforts, forking a large mouthful of barely recognisable greenery into my mouth, when Emily was standing directly in front my desk.

That was another thing about Emily. She liked to just appear. Once, she’d appeared beside me while I was pouring coffee and the person sitting across the room had received pretty severe burns on their chest when I’d flung the entire jug of steaming hot liquid in his direction in purely reflexive action.

“You might want to go defend the copier,” she informed me, leaning in close with an intensity that succeeded in scaring the crap out of me. “Derek says he needs to photocopy a document for their file.”

A curse left my lips before I could stop it and as Emily disappeared once more, I hurtled across the office to the copy room, snatching a file from my inbox as I went.

Derek was the most personable member of the Squad, and therefore their nominated spokesperson when it came to interoffice communications, but he was hell on my copier. Last time he’d been near it, it had taken me three weeks to get it back to the way I liked it. Somehow he had managed to inadvertently change the default language to German. Between the manual and Google Translate, the task of getting it back to English had taken me three hours alone. After that I had to deal with the recurring problem of the twenty minute shut down setting which he’d somehow locked. I had to get Antoine in from decoding to crack the password so I could change it.

Skidding to a halt in front of the photocopier, I slid the first document out of the file, scanning the instructions on the post-it note quickly as I slid it into the paper tray on the top and began hitting buttons on the screen. I had just hit GO and was relaxing back against the sorting table when Derek crossed the threshold.

“Hey,” I greeted with feigned enthusiasm, looking over my shoulder to keep an eye on him. “How’s it going?”

He strolled in like he owned the place, his thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his black cargo pants. “Fine,” he replied. His gazed travelled around the room, pausing pointedly on the copier, clunking away as it spat out page after page. “Just came in to use your magical replicating machine,” he explained, adopting a broad Southern American accent. “It appears it’s in use though.”

“Sorry about that,” I mentioned, shrugging with a ‘what can you do?’ kind of gesture. “If you wanna leave with me I can get it back to you within the hour.” Extending my hand for the document that was nowhere in sight, I offered him my friendliest, least threatening smile. He didn’t need to know that in my head I was giving him the ultimatum of staying the hell away from my copier or having his balls force back up into his body. Besides, he’d find out soon enough if he didn’t agree to let me do his photocopying for him.

His movements were slow and deliberate as he reached down to his cargo pocket, maintaining eye contact the entire time. The folded paper – didn’t he know that by creasing the original he was damaging the quality of all subsequent copies? – slipped fluidly from the pocket and was raised in my direction, stopping just a few inches from my waiting hand.

“This is because of what I did last time, isn’t it?” he asked, raising a single eyebrow.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied. Of course I knew what he was talking about. That ordeal haunted me every time I had to take a sick day. What if they had urgent copying that needed to be done right then and there and they messed with my settings? What if they caused a paper jam? The possibilities were endless and terrifying.

A smirk grew on his features. “Don’t pretend you don’t remember,” he said, closing the space between us. One second he was a respectful three feet away, the next he was all up on my business. “I messed with the settings and you nearly had a heart attack.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” I demanded, dropping all pretence of peace. “You screwed everything up!”

“Because it was funny,” he said simply, his face so close I could feel his breath on my cheek. I was becoming flustered. No man should have eyelashes that long! While I was still stuck in my mind, fighting against the hold I was sure he had on it, he blew out a quick breath –the kind one usually uses to blow out candles – a t my mop of curls, sending them dancing in all directions, placed the folded paper on the table beside me and strode from the room with an efficient pace. “Seven copies, double sided,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll be in the break room.”

He was out the door before I managed to gain enough control over my body to race after him, tripping on the corner table leg and almost falling face first into the stationary cupboard on my way. By the time I swung out of the room he was already at the door to the hall. “’Because it was funny’ is not a good reason for messing with a woman’s photocopier!” I cried across the room, heedless of the startled glances I was awarded for my trouble. I couldn’t even tell if he’d heard me, since he was already out of sight by the time the words had burst out of me.

As I sagged against the doorframe, Emily appeared beside me once more. I didn’t have the energy to be surprised.

“Crisis averted?” she enquired briskly as I unfolded the document Derek had left with me.

“For now,” I muttered, staring down at the blank piece of paper. “I have a feeling he’ll be trying again before long though.”

Remember when I said he was the most personable of the lot? Well, I may have forgotten to point out that he was still a big ass.


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