Grey, one of the volunteers, took a phone from his back pocket, and the guard quickly snatched it from his hand.
“Man, come on. I enabled flight mode. I want it for the games.”
“No outside distractions are permitted.”
Grey, perhaps not the brightest crayon in the box, slung an arm around the guard’s shoulders and leaned closer than personal space would ever permit. “Last test, you guys left us in that hamster ball for forty eight hours with nothing to do. That drove us crazier than the drug ever could.”
With no amount of glee, the guard knocked Grey’s arm off. “Keep talking, chum, and you’re going to disqualify yourself.”
“I bet it’s a mind control drug.” Thomson whispered over me, to Grey. “Last test, there wasn’t this much secrecy.”
Emma snorted through the bobby pin in-between her lips. “If it is, we’re hardly going to remember it.” Two heads swivelled in her direction. Thomson’s face was priceless; his eyes wider than two overinflated balloons.
“They can’t brainwash us. We could sue their arses off if they so much as tried. Consent has to be informed.”
“Water, Ms Burns?”
“Miss. And no, thank you.” The jug was taken away, replaced by a clipboard with a thick stack of paper. The interviewer, a scrawny man with nervous eyes and a white mark on one of his front teeth, fidgeted in his seat, sniffed, and handed me a pen, after a brief struggle with his pocket square, from his blazer pocket.
“I’m obligated to explain the risks, as well as the nature of the drug, in order to obtain informed consent from you.”
“Understood.” Curiosity frothed in my throat. “What am I testing?”
“A revolutionary drug that, when ingested, blocks certain synapses in the nerves and brain. It has the capability to block any capacity for pain, and it eliminates any thought of fear.” A pause. “Fortis.”
He blinked. “Beg your pardon?”
“Pain reminds us we’re alive. And fear forces us to be better people.” I’d have never endured university without cutting my stomach and thighs, and I’d have never learnt how better to handle my pain if I hadn’t overcome my fear of getting help. Both were essential in ending a self-destructive cycle. Or even a self-sabotaging one.
With narrowed eyes, he pushed the paperwork towards me, sniffed again, and shrugged his shoulders. It didn’t help – the blazer still sat awkwardly on his frame. “You’re not here to critique our work, Miss Burns. For a large sum of money,” the smug superiority in his lipless smile made my skin crawl, “you’re here to test it.”
The gleam from the white room hurt my eyes. It felt like staring unrelentingly at the sun. I claimed the bunk furthest from the overhead light, as useless as the gesture was, and flopped onto the military-made bed face first.
Two seconds later, someone started breathing down my neck.
“We’re going to be a while,” I told my pillow, propping my head up so my voice wasn’t muffled, “and personal space is very important to me.”
A cold voice answered. “I want the bottom bunk.”
“Sorry, but it’s occupied.”
A hand abruptly fisted the back of my shirt and yanked me up and into a hard chest. Before my brain could fully comprehend the balls of the guy, he’d released me, dropped onto my bed and folded his arms behind his head, lounging like a rude, black panther. I stared at him, mouth agape.
It was Emma who came to my rescue. “Were you raised in a barn? It’s not ok to pick someone up and move them!”
He looked up at us. “I wanted the bed. I get what I want.”
“Not if somebody is already using it!” Anger - real, aggressive anger- was in Emma’s voice. Her fists were clenched. Her teeth gritted. All too quickly, I realised how disastrously this could end. We’d had the drug twenty minutes ago. Could it really have acted that quickly?
“Forget it.” I placed a tentative hand on her forearm, half expecting her to jerk away or slap me, but she did neither. Instead, her chest heaved and the manic gleam from her eyes gradually dissolved. After a long minute watching her for signs of more aggression, I took my hand away. She stayed in place, swaying the slightest bit.
“How do you feel?” I asked in a quiet voice, trying not to startle her. The outburst seemed to have sent her into a state of shock. My assumption was only proven when she shook her head, lips halfway parted, and gulped. When she did speak, it was in a wavering voice.
“I couldn’t…stop. I was getting angrier and angrier, and it felt…liberating. Like a flood rushing your brain and wiping out that little voice that tells you you can’t do something. I wasn’t scared of him, of his size, of his anything. It’s like I forgot I was a woman, that injuries hurt, that he could hurt me.”
Mashed potatoes dribbled from Thomson’s fork onto the plastic tray with a sickening plop. His expression summed up my thoughts perfectly.
“You’d think they’d fork out for the good stuff.” Grey said, a scowl on his face as he pushed the tray under the nearest bunk bed. “We’re testing a potentially lethal drug for them out of the goodness of our hearts.”
Emma snorted. “And for the benefit of our bank accounts.”
Grey sat up, fluffed the pillow he’d taken from Emma’s bed, and collapsed back onto it with an exhale louder than any I’d ever heard before. “It doesn’t matter how they much they’re paying us. If we starve before we get out of here, we’re not going to get a chance to spend it, are we?”
Thomson, with fear in his eyes, shoved the tray away. It skidded into the bunk’s leg and overturned, sending peas sprawling and splattering potato onto the exposed sheet at the foot of the bottom bed. The occupant, a Filipino woman with a cap of messy, brown hair, didn’t open her eyes at the impact. She was cross-legged beside the bed, meditating.
Emma and Grey looked anywhere but at the mess, and Thomson blushed brighter than fresh blood, twisting his ring finger anxiously. It took a second for me to realise that he was actually twisting the finger. When he changed directions, I saw the very top of a bone jutting out from his skin. It was thinner than a wishbone.
“Stop, Thomson.” I grabbed his uninjured hand and held it to the floor. He tried to pull himself loose, frowning at me in confusion, but I put all my weight into holding him down. “Look at me, Thomson. Right at me.” His efforts to free himself didn’t stop, but he met my eyes. “I want you to keep your eyes on me.”
I recalled Emma’s freak out earlier. She hadn’t been aware of herself until I’d snapped her out of it. If I could keep Thomson distracted, maybe help would get here before the instinct to panic truly set in.
“What?” Grey chucked the stolen pillow onto the nearest bed and scooted closer. When he spotted the tiny bone, he whistled, even as the blood drained out of his face. “Thomson, man, what the hell. Fingers aren’t meant to bend that way.”
Inevitably, the poor guy broke focus with me and looked down. His scream was louder than Emma’s. Then he fainted.
Thomson was let back into the room by a guard minutes before lights out was called. I was the only one who bothered to get out of bed to check on him. He shambled over to his bunk, stopped, and considered the white bandage that’d swallowed his finger. A tear escaped from the corner of his eye.
“We only have to endure another couple of hours.” I reassured him. “They’re not going to dose us up again. It’s too dangerous.” Marketing Fortis to the public was nothing more than a pipe dream. It’d rip the country apart (if we were lucky).
“It doesn’t hurt.” He whispered. “I looked down and saw the bone, and I told myself it hurt, it had to hurt, but I couldn’t feel anything.” With little-kid eyes, he found my fingers and squeezed. “What have they done to us, Sasha?”
I squeezed back. “Nothing that can’t be undone. I promise.”
Breakfast came and went. The Filipino sat with us but didn’t speak. Her quiet presence was relaxing. It certainly settled Thomson’s nerves long enough for him to finish his porridge.
Once the meal was finished, we went our separate ways. Thomson and Grey retreated to their bunk bed and started a game of ‘fuck, kill, marry’. I started my Pilates routine, noted Emma’s and the Filipino’s interest, and offered to teach it to them.
We were warming up, Panther observing us from his pilfered bunk, when another dose, twelve green tablets in six plastic cups, was wheeled into the room.
Thomson sat up and whacked his head on the ceiling.
The guard accompanying the tablets began pouring water into six cups. By the time he’d reached the last one I was by the cart, alternating between glaring down at the Fortis and into his masked face.
“You can’t be serious.” Despite his hidden face, I somehow knew he was raising an eyebrow at me. I pointed, violently, at the drugs. “Those things are dangerous. Thomson broke his finger, actually broke it himself, and he didn’t realise. Do you know how terrifying that is?”
“No consumption of the drug, no money.”
“This isn’t safe. We could do irreparable damage to ourselves, or to each other. We could kill each other.”
“You’re being monitored. We will intervene if we deem the situation to be unsafe.”
“Like you did with Thomson?”
The guard tilted his head to the left. “He took us by surprise.”
“What happens when you’re taken by surprise again?”
“Unpredictability is a staple of clinical trials. We deal with consequences when they happen, not when they’re anticipated.” He believed it too – the conviction glowed in his eyes like a homing beacon. Nothing I could say, no warning I could desperately toss out, would force him to roll those drugs back into the hallway again. And even if he did, what was to stop the others following them out? I didn’t know everyone’s motivation for being here, but material greed couldn’t be driving them all. Who would listen to common sense when deeper, darker emotions were at play?
Panther’s slow climb from the far bunk broke into my thought process. Despite the green, crinkly uniform, he cut an intimidating figure: shaved head, two tattoo sleeves, bright but macabre, razor-sharp cheekbones and thin lips. He stopped by my side, close enough for me to feel the body heat he was exerting, picked the pills out of their cup and tossed them into his mouth. My brain denied reality, told me he couldn’t have really taken them, while my eyes stayed on his throat, watching his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed.
“Are you so desperate for money, you’d risk your own safety?” I finally managed to ask, unsuccessful in masking my disapproval. Every eye in the room was on him, watching for his reaction, testing his sanity, anticipating a breakdown akin to Thomson’s.
With frustrating calmness, he chucked my chin. “Not all of us have the luxury of choice.”
Without another word he returned to his bunk, slapped the pillow over his face and, presumably, drifted off to sleep. All eyes remained on his prone form, waiting for it to jerk, or tremble, or shoot up from the mattress, suffering from a sudden loss of its autonomy, but nothing happened. And after an agonising minute had dragged by of awkward, tension-filled silence, Emma and the Filipino retrieved their assigned doses. Neither would meet my disbelieving stare.
Thomson and Grey, my last chance to stop this stupidity in its tracks, hadn’t moved from their beds. Thomson’s skin had passed from white to translucent, so much so that the pulsing vein in his temple stood out in stark relief from his walnut eyes. There wasn’t a part of him that I couldn’t see shaking. He was like a plate of jelly, not given a chance to set.
Grey, on the other hand, had a flushed face and neck, but he was hanging upside down from his bed, hands brushing the padded floor. The sight of him, positioned like a ten-year-old on monkey bars, roused my maternal instincts as well as my self-preservation ones.
“The rest of us aren’t falling for it.” I snarled at the guard, stepping closer to the men.
“You have the option to withdraw from the trial and forfeit any payment.” He recited back to me. I could almost picture the terms and conditions booklet I’d read that from before agreeing to the trial.
“I want to.” Thomson said in a squeaky voice. He coughed. “Leave the study, that is. I don’t want to take any more of that stuff. I don’t like what it did to me. What it’s doing.”
“The drug’s out of our systems by now, dude.” Grey said.
Thomson untucked his bandage, yanked it off and whacked his broken finger on the metal bedframe. A resounding squelch almost overturned my stomach.
Grey, with difficulty, turned himself the right way round and stared at his friend, and his friend’s finger, in amazement. “It’s at an angle. Literally.”
“And I can’t feel a thing.” Thomson said. He looked at his finger and moaned. “Whatever this drug does, it’s done it to us permanently.”
“Well?” I demanded of the guard, gesturing emphatically at Thomson’s finger.
The guard only shrugged. “Individual reactions will be taken into account. And the effects,” he said to Thomson, “are not permanent. We’ve tested Fortis on animals and synthetic blood, with unparalleled success. The drug remains in the system of living organisms longer than in artificial ones. It’s more effective than current marketed drugs, that’s all.”
I could see from Thomson’s eyes that he wasn’t convinced. Paranoia, fear, panic – whatever had gripped him, had sunk its claws in. “I don’t care.” He muttered, lowering himself down the bunk’s ladder. His whole body jumped the tiniest bit when his feet met the floor. “I want out. I want to go home.”
“And you?” The guard, and Grey, turned their focus to me. I opened my mouth, sure of my refusal to participate further in this godforsaken experiment, but reason gagged me.
We’d lost everything when Mary-Jane skipped bail – the deed to the house and restaurant, our livelihood, our savings on cheap, dilapidated rentals. Mum had had to leave school for a minimum-wage job. The pay out from this study would give us the deposit towards a new home, start-up money for another restaurant, funds to send mum back to night school so she could finish her nursing degree. Fortis could turn everything around for us, if I gave it the chance.
But how could I compromise my safety and my sanity for paper? Mum would never ask that of me. I’d go home, tell her the truth, and we’d find another way. She wouldn’t resent me for putting myself first; on the contrary, she’d be proud.
But I wouldn’t be. I’d blame myself for keeping our family in poverty, for denying us a chance to flourish again because of a fearful voice in the back of my head.
“Well?” The guard hissed, tossing my own hostility back at me.
I could feel eyes on me from more than one of the other volunteers. Were they testing my nerve? Cursing me out in their minds? Wishing they’d taken a stand? I told myself I didn’t care what they thought of me, of my lowered head and sudden hush. Logic, infallible as it might be, couldn't overpower my heart.
“This is still wrong.” I insisted.
Thomson was escorted from the room, and the guard followed him, only two of the twelve pills left to rattle in their plastic cup. I refused to make eye contact with anyone, ashamed of caving to circumstances, as I grabbed a change of clothes and sequestered myself away in the bathroom. The lock, unfortunately, had been removed, but that was the compromise for the removal of cameras/two-way mirrors. I remembered Grey commenting on it yesterday.
The water heated almost immediately, and soon the room filled with steam. I stripped, placed my folded clothes on the closed toilet seat, and threw myself under the showerhead. Heat on my stressed muscles went a long way to draining the tension out of me, and by the time my hair was washed, my whole body was as malleable as fabric.
That, an excuse I clung to later, was why I didn’t freak out when Panther joined me in the open cubicle, naked as a screaming newborn and wearing the world’s cheesiest leer. Strangely enough, I wasn’t scared. I didn’t feel embarrassed, or helpless. I was aware of my vulnerability in the face of his strength, but I wasn’t deterred. Everything in the shower was a potential weapon, including me, and even if I did fail, what was he going to achieve? One scream and help would come running. He’d be arrested for attempted rape, and I could sue. Either way, no harm no foul.
“I’ll tell you once, dickhead. Get out.” His leer widened as he reached across me to switch off the water. I deliberately ignored the fact that he copped a feel in the process.
Without the pounding spatter of water on tile, the room echoed with anticipation and foreboding. I knew he’d make a move, but until he did, I couldn’t react. My defence had to be iron-tight.
“Are you deaf? I shower alone.”
“You’re not showering.”
I turned the water back on. He crooked an eyebrow. “Water’s on. I’m showering. Get the fuck out.”
With one step forward, he backed me into the wall, the faucet gouging into my back like a masseuse’s hands during a deep tissue massage. Water landed on his bare head and dribbled from the tip of his nose, his eyelashes, the four o’clock shadow on his face. Drops of it splattered me, each like a bullet on my goose pimpled flesh.
“Most women would have shouted for help by now.” With a hand on the side of my face, he dipped his head down, and pressed his lips so close to mine that I could feel his breath in my mouth, despite the torrent of water between us. “Your body’s scared. Your pupils are dilated.” A taunting hand caressed my left forearm and drew an imaginary ring around the infinity symbol on my wrist. “Your arms are covered in goose bumps. You can’t breathe right. And look,” he pressed a hand flat to my breast, his fingers right over my heart. “Your heart’s racing a mile a minute.”
My elbow hit him in the gut and he wheezed, doubling over. Sense demanded that I get out of the bathroom. My hands did something different; they grabbed Panther by the chin, dragged his face up to mine and ploughed his eyes out.