Coming your way this summer/fall, here’s the new start to my debut, young adult novel, folks.
I first jumped back in time on September 21, 1980, just a few weeks into high school, but nothing about how that day started was odd in any way. It’s not like the sun popped out of the sky and said, “Hey Jack, how about if you take a trip to a completely different era where nothing makes any sense to you?”
No, it was a regular day where I woke up from my incredibly annoying alarm clock, which of course alerted King, our Golden Retriever, that he should burst through my bedroom door and lick me all over the face until I was awake enough to push him off of me. He followed me down the hall like usual, standing behind me even when I whizzed into the toilet, lest I don’t know, he miss out on any of my fun. He and I didn’t even notice anymore that the sink was wrapped in rolled up towels, held in place by constantly unraveling, goopy duct tape. It had been that way since my parents had started letting me use the bathroom by myself.
I have epilepsy, see, which means that on an irregular basis I lose consciousness as the neurons in my brain decide to go on a bender and start firing like a bunch of kindergarteners who missed their Ritalin dose that day. As one can imagine, this gets in the way of conversations, walking, brushing one’s teeth, or anything else worth doing. But like the padding over the hard surfaces around the house, I’ve gotten used to having seizures, even if I’m not happy about them.
Sometimes—maybe half the time—the “episodes” gave me a tiny bit of warning, mostly by screwing with my sense of balance. The ground around me would abruptly shift diagonally, like a ship listing hard to one side. Or my own private earthquake. I mastered the art of quickly sitting down, before I would fall over into humiliating twitchiness. Before the darkness could collapse over me.
In the kitchen that day, my mother sat quietly at the round table my father and I had built the summer before. There was a glob of varnish on one side that I liked to feel when I ate my breakfast, because it was smooth and irregular, and the wood underneath was more yellow. As usual, Dad had folded the paper to the comics section and left it next to my cereal bowl. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t read those comics anymore. I’d moved on to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
“What do you have after school today,” asked Mom, still staring out the window toward the poplar trees behind our house. They’d turned bright yellow, but hadn’t started littering the lawn yet. It would be my job to rake the leaves when they had fallen. Joy.
“Nothing. I mean, hanging out with Sanjay, but nothing else. Why?”
Jay lived across the street from me. He never teased me about my seizures, but we’d known each other since preschool. He was kind of an outcast, too, just because he was Indian. We had some stupid kids in our school district.
“There’s a new study at the hospital for children with epilepsy. I enrolled you in it.”
“A what?” I didn’t feel like any extra studying, so I hoped this wasn’t what she meant.
She turned to me.
“They’re experimenting with a new process to see if they can cure some cases of epilepsy.”
“A process” didn’t clear it up for me.
“Is it a new drug?” I was on my sixth different pill. Pill Number One gave me delusions that I was a doctor, even though I was still a toddler at the time. Mom had found me behind the living room sofa, cutting at myself with a razor blade, announcing I was doing “surgery.” Pill Number Three made my extremities feel mushy and heavy all the time. I tripped a lot back then. I was not a fan of Pill Number Three.
“No, it’s like they have a new way of looking at your brain waves, and changing them. Dr. Barett told me about it.”
Dr. Barett, my neurologist, was fresh out of some big name medical program, top of his class, said the nurses. He was nice but he seemed to like nerve cells more than people. I wasn’t surprised that this juicy new experiment to fix brain waves was his suggestion. I nodded, since Jay and I could hang out any time we wanted, and forgot about it until I came home from school, when Mom hustled me out the door, jingling her car keys in irritation, like they were a bell instead of a device used to ignite our Ford’s engine.
The first part of the study session was familiar to me, because every month since I could remember I’d sat in a similar oversized vinyl chair and let some nurse apply blobs of cold putty all over my head. The nurses smelled like soap and antiseptic. They took a long time to attach the long, thin wires all over my head, and unlike the nurses I had for my monthly checkup, these two women didn’t make any small talk with me while they worked. I wasn’t sure if I liked the quiet or not. Finally I was ready for all of the electricity in my brain to be scratched out by a machine that looked like one of those boxes that measured ground tremors. Then for half an hour I sat as still as a scared rat while they watched the patterns of my broken neurons.
The second part of the study was different, longer, and involved the head of the study, a man with thick sideburns and gorilla hands, sending electrical signals to me to see if he could change how my brain responded. Once again I had to stay absolutely still the entire time, because I could ruin the test if I moved so much as a pinky toe. I tried to come up with all of the ways that staying perfectly still could benefit me, but after two minutes had only listed Buckingham Palace Guard and mime pretending to be dead.
I sat frozen for something like ten minutes, which was a sure-fire way to drive me crazy. Nothing like telling a guy to stay to make him need to move as much as possible. My left elbow started itching, and my right foot was in full pins-and-needles mode. The glob of putty above my left eye ever so slowly oozed down my forehead, or at least it felt that way. I tried to see the clock on the wall ahead of me, but with my glasses safely tucked away on the counter behind me, I couldn’t make out the position of the hands. It was just as well; knowing the time would probably have made me obsess about how much longer I’d be stuck in the chair. It was snot green to boot.
A metal click and then dull hum came over the PA, but I stayed still.
“How are you doing, hon,” asked Cindy, the lab technician. She had bright red hair not to be found in nature, and said everything through a smile. I liked her immediately.
My father had always said “Smile and they never know what you’re thinking.” So I worried I shouldn’t trust her, for all of her grinning. But since she’d asked me something, I answered her.
I hadn’t even spoken yet when the seismograph thing set up next to me went wild, scratching out thick, dark lines on the paper. Alerting the world: It’s alive!
“I’m okay. Itchy, and I think my right foot’s asleep.”
“Go ahead and scratch if it’s not your head, and shake your foot a little.”
I dug at my elbow through my shirt, which didn’t eliminate the itch well enough, but it would have to do. I couldn’t dig under my sleeve without upsetting the wires that trailed from all over my head. I pounded my foot on the floor, trying to startle it enough to wake up. Without thinking, I reached up to stop the glop on my head from getting in my eyes. I knew better than to touch anything other than the tip of my nose, but once I’d started moving itches popped up everywhere, screaming for attention, and I forgot myself.
“Oh, hang on there, bucko,” said the doctor, who’d come into the room from behind me. He put my hand down on the armrest. His touch was heavy and cold; his hand a hairy giant on top of mine.
“Don’t mess with the wires.”
I took a breath and relaxed, having heard this a million times before. He walked over to the machine, running his hand over his mutton chops. A long strand of connected paper had piled up in the basket next to the small monitor, and he bent low to snag the printout in the middle until he had a ribbon of it to examine. Cindy came out from the next room.
“There’s the abnormality,” I heard him say to her, pointing at the paper in a few places. “Let’s run one more test since he’s still hooked up, only this time I want to make a change to the stimulus.” They walked away, talking, and I was free to sneak in a scratch at whatever needed attention. At the moment, nothing bothered me. My body never cooperated. It didn’t demand much when I was allowed to deal with it.
The doctor was back at my side, talking loudly to me as if I had hearing problems, not a seizure disorder. He was a lot older than my regular doctor, with gray streaks clumping together at his temples. Cindy had said his work was the Rosetta Stone of neurology research, whatever that meant. I liked him enough. Nothing about rocks seemed cutting edge to me.
“Okay, Jack, we’re going to do just one more test. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
I nodded, sighed, and waited. A buzz zipped along my spine, which caused me to jerk a bit, and the machine roared.
I lost all sense of the room, the wires, the cold putty. In a flash of painful light I was on a hillside, in mid-step, running up a dirt trail, holding something in my hand. I wanted to know the shape of it, but couldn’t figure it out. I had the impression that I held it a lot. Something felt wrong with how I was running, too, as if the effort it normally took to lift my feet had been recalibrated.
“Do you notice anything,” asked the doctor through the microphone in the other room. I blinked, saw the pale green walls around me and the fuzzy metal clock on the far wall. I was back. But of course I hadn’t left.
“I saw something,” I said. With each passing second, I felt less sure about where I’d been.
“Can you describe it,” he asked, panting a little at the end of his question. It creeped me out.
I told him, feeling foolish, about the hill and the dirt path. A weird image came to me just then, that I had been wearing strange shoes. Leather moccasins, maybe. But I lived in these red Converse high tops. Why would I think of moccasins? Where did I even learn about moccasins?
He wrote down what I said, turning off his microphone partway through. I could see him through the observation glass, talking with Cindy. This would be a good time to know how to read lips, I thought. He stepped back into the room after a couple of minutes and told me I’d done a good job, clapping a hand on my shoulder. His palm took up all of the real estate I had there, but I sat there rigid. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to be tough.
Cindy unhooked me from the machine; I was grateful to end transmitting all my brain waves to everyone in the room, even if people couldn’t exactly read my mind from the printout. She pulled over a tray on wheels, and dabbed a hand cloth into a steel bowl of warm water. She wiped most of the putty off of my scalp and temples in silence, no smiling anymore. I looked at a picture of Olympic swimmers on the wall in front of me. What the hell was this poster about, and why was it here, of all places? Were we supposed to aspire to athletic greatness even if we could have a seizure in the water?
The doctor walked over to my mother who was hunched over an issue of People in the waiting room. She looked up at him and waited for him to update her.
“Jack was great today,” he said, “and I’d like to see him next week if you can bring him in. I think we can isolate the source of his seizures.”
“Oh, really,” she asked, looking at me. “He’s such a good kid. It’s just terrible that he has to deal with these episodes. I’d hoped he’d outgrow them by high school.”
“Mom,” I said, in an attempt to get her to stop talking.
“It’s okay, Jack,” the doctor said, now grinning. It was clear he didn’t make facial expressions all that often. “I’m really glad we got you in this study.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I shrugged. But I was troubled.