You were supposed to be a doctor. If you’re raised by two doctors, you’re also supposed to be a doctor because that is their plan. You would graduate high school and attend some prestigious medical school and they would pay for it and everyone would be happy. Well, you didn’t want that. You always wanted to write. Imagine their disappointment when you told them.
They didn’t say it, but you could tell. They still helped you pay for your schooling, even though you’d heard your father mutter to himself that degrees in English were “goddamn wastes of money” more than once. It’s because of this that you don’t want to ask them for too much.
School is very important to you, and because you take it very seriously, you only work part-time. You work in a restaurant at the host stand. You take the people from the front door to a table, from front to table, front—table. It’s monotonous but it’s easy and though the pay isn’t much, every little bit that you don’t have to ask your resentful father for helps.
Sometimes you don’t have enough to buy groceries so you might sneak something off of a plate in the back while nobody’s looking. You know you’re not supposed to eat off the plates you’ve taken away from a table, but who eats three bites of a perfectly good steak and then throws it out? Don’t they know you’re starving? It’s fine because nobody sees you do this.
Except for Richie, the stupid bus boy. He catches you one day.
He comes over and whispers to you: “Don’t do that. You’re gonna get hepatitis.” You can actually get that, you know. From eating off of somebody’s plate. Hepatitis A is transmitted orally. It’s in the saliva. There’s a lot of other things you can get too. That one’s probably the worst. You tell Richie to leave you alone because you’re fuckin’ starving and he tells you that there’s another way to make some extra money and buy groceries. A way that doesn’t involve you selling your body…well not exactly.
He tells you about a company he knows that organizes test groups. The test subjects get paid for their opinions, to participate in studies and sometimes they get paid to participate in clinical trials for new drugs. You can get high and they’ll pay you to do it. He gives you a card out of his wallet.
The next afternoon you walk into a small storefront in a strip mall. It doesn’t seem very legitimate…but Richie told you that some of these trials pay thousands of dollars just to take a pill every morning when you wake up or when you go to bed. Sometimes both. It seems worth the risk. You fill out a questionnaire.
The people in the strip-mall storefront scrutinize and prod you. They ask you to strip naked so they can analyze your body. You answer questions about your medical history and allergens and everything you say and do leads you to think that this seems less and less legitimate. Then they ask you to get dressed again and tell you that you have an appointment to meet with someone at the nearby campus of a giant, well known pharmaceutical company. They hand you a folder with all of the information they’ve collected off you at the strip mall. The folder is magenta. If you decide to accept this clinical trial, you could be paid upwards of five figures for your time and energy. It sounds too good to be true.
You decide to go to this appointment.
On your way to this giant pharmaceutical campus, you look in the folder you’re carrying. Along with all of your information, they’ve included a set of black and white glossy pictures. The pictures are of you–your naked body from multiple angles. You find that incredibly unnerving because you don’t remember seeing anyone with a camera. Did you consent to this? You’re not sure. You signed a lot of things.
Potentially five figures, you remind yourself.
You push this feeling of unease to the back of your mind as you head up the steps to the reception area.
The woman behind the desk smiles widely behind square framed glasses. You ask if it’s true that they pay a lot of money for these trials. She shrugs and tells you she just answers the phones and tells people where to go. She asks you to pass over your folder. Your breath catches in your throat as you decide what to do–you find yourself cautiously handing it over. She’s about your age. She has short black hair. It’s chemically-fried and lusterless; it obviously came out of a $5 box from a drugstore. She smiles at you through small, gapped teeth. The gaps are too wide. She hands you a clipboard that has some paperwork you need to sign and absently waves you off.
“If you could just find a seat somewhere in the lobby and read through and sign wherever it’s been marked with the highlighter.”
Giddily, she thumbs through your folder. She pauses to adjust her glasses and then giggles to herself. You know that this means she has seen the photos.
Feeling uneasy, you continue to quickly glance through the paperwork given to you. In among the information is a non-disclosure agreement that you aren’t going to tell anyone about the company or the drug you’ll soon be testing; if you do, you agree that the company is allowed to sue you until you’re dead. When you recount this experience later, you’ll have to remember to do so vaguely.
You bring the clipboard with the papers that relinquish your rights back to the woman with the small, gappy teeth. She places these papers into the magenta folder and hands it back to you. She tells you that everything seems in order. The people with magenta folders go to the third floor, room 314, she tells you. The elevators are at the end of the long hallway to your left.
You ride the elevator up with two young women. You feel uncomfortable and quiet. They also seem uncomfortable and quiet. The one with blonde hair has a faded scar under her right eye. She is petite, carrying in her small hand a magenta folder. She is wearing an oversize men’s shirt over a tank-top. The tall one has sandy brown hair and gauged earlobes. She wears a bohemian style floor-length paisley skirt. Her folder is forest green. Everyone looks down at their sneakers with embarrassed hope that the floor will open up beneath you all so you can fall down into the elevator shaft until you die at the bottom… Maybe you could melt into the carpet forever. That could work too, you decide.
The receptionist with short dark hair and small teeth has seen everyone in this elevator naked. Nobody talks about it, but everyone can sense the shame looming in the air.
When the elevator doors open, there is a sign. 300-310 are to the left. 311-318 are to the right. The tall one in the flowing skirt goes left. You and the short one go right. You feel like you should say something to break the tension because you are both walking to the same room. You notice that she smells good. You decide that telling her this will create more tension so you opt to keep it to yourself.
The door to 314 is propped open. You and the young lady in the oversize shirt cautiously breach the threshold where 18 other people are waiting. They’re seated around a large rectangular conference table. At the front of the room is a presentation screen. The presentation has not started yet. Richie is there and he’s saved you a seat. You breathe a sigh of relief as you take it and set your magenta folder onto the table in front of you like everyone else has done.
You muse that the receptionist downstairs has probably seen everyone at this table naked in black-and-white glossy from multiple angles.
Finally, a woman in a lab coat enters the room. She does a quick head count and closes the door behind herself. Clearing her throat, she begins a speech:
“Good afternoon everyone. My name is Dr. Jennavive Upton. You are all here to participate in a clinical trial of one of our new pharmaceutical products. Our screening process has identified each of you for one reason or another as a likely candidate that could benefit from this product. I’m going to play a short video for all of you explaining what this trial is. After the video plays I will be dividing you into groups of five, based on certain criteria that’s already been predetermined and we’ll begin moving forward with the trial. Should you decide to participate, your participation is completely optional and you can opt out at any time. Does anyone have any questions?”
Nobody does, so Jennavive begins the short video. During this short video, you learn that the trial you are about to participate in is in its final iterations prior to being released to the public. You learn of the side effects which include strange dreams, joint inflammation, dehydration and possible hallucinations. There is a very long list of potential side effects. This shortened version is all that you retain. The video claims that the drug you are about to help perfect is “thought to” work by diminishing the body’s fight-or-flight response to spikes in adrenaline and cortisol. The video ends with the elderly agoraphobe finally leaving her house and meeting a neighbor at a cafe. You find this five minute commercial all very touching…but not really. Really, you think it’s pretty corny.
“The drug we are testing,” Jennavive explains to the group, “will help you live your lives without being hindered by the things you fear. Over the course of this trial, you will come to identify these phobias as irrational and learn to phase them out.” this is basically the same gist that you’ve gotten from the video, but she is reiterating it again in a very rehearsed script. “I will shortly divide you all into 4 distinct groups and you will head into another area where you will all participate in a short group therapy before receiving the drug and instructions for use. Therapy sessions will be conducted three times this week to make sure that everyone is acclimating to the pharmaceutical correctly. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Are there any questions?”
You want to ask about payment, but thankfully you do not have to. The girl that you shared the unspoken shame with in the elevator does this for you. Jennavive assures the group that the trial pays very well–more than a year’s salary for some people, but she does not give an exact amount, explaining that the pay scale has a tendency to vary based on your level of involvement. Whatever that means.
She begins dividing everyone into groups. Richie is in another group entirely, much to your dismay. While you don’t really like him very much, (in fact, you find him rather obnoxious,) you’d prefer not be forced to interact with a group of strangers for the duration of this group therapy session. Though it was described by Jennavive as “short,” this prospect doesn’t really appeal to you.
You know you’ll agree to it because of the potential payout.
The other four in your group are the girl in the men’s shirt, a man with horn-rimmed glasses, a lanky, balding man and a woman who’s breath is hot and terrible. You are lead into a smaller room down the hall. The sign on the door reads 316.
The person leading the group discussion is a frail, older gentleman. He tells you that his name is Dr. Jordan Grant. He tells you that the five of you are going to discuss your fear of blood. Somehow they’d extrapolated this secret from you during all of the screening and tests. You didn’t even realize when it happened. Somewhere inside of you, your heart sinks into your feet and then continues to sink further. Down. Down. Past the floor. He assures you that by the end of this trial, your fear won’t be a problem any longer.
Somewhere behind your eyes as you stare vacantly, memories begin unraveling. Playing like a spool on a player-piano, you hear them all. A reel of discordant memories that make you shiver.
When you were 9, you and your brother were playing in the backyard in the tree-house that your father built for you. You fell out of it. Your arm snapped audibly. Sickeningly. The bone poked out. You remember it was all white and surrounded by a bowl of tomato soup that was sloshing over and out of you. Hot and red. You stared at it from far away, not responding to the hurried screams of your parents. Completely catatonic until the arm was set, and the stitches were sewn.
When you were 12, you and your friend Mark were in the woods together. Mark had the pocket knife. The two of you had been stabbing the trees all day. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Watching the sap ooze out through the bark. You decided you were going to play ‘Blood-Brothers.’ Well–Mark decided. He sliced into the bark of his hand releasing the dark viscous sap. You don’t remember what happened after he cut into his own bark. You’d fainted.
You remember the worst incident. It happened when you were 16. Your brother was 14. He slipped and fell while running around the pool. On his path into the water, he split his head open on the tiles at the side. A little gash in the side of his round head. Smashed and cracked open like glass. Like a jelly-jar. As he sank into the pool, he began quietly seeping out all of his preserves. The cloud of red spread out in a circle from his blonde head. You did manage to save him, but not because you jumped in after. You screamed. And screamed. And screamed. You screamed until your jelly-jar, (not cracked) turned purple. Turned into Concorde Grape. You don’t remember it. You only remember his raspberry jam thinning and fogging the water. Spreading out in a halo around his split head. One of the neighbors heard you and jumped the fence. The EMT’s had to revive you both.
The man began by reading a passage from a book describing blood and its function in the human body. As the girl in the men’s shirt began to hyperventilate, your head lolled off to the side and when you woke up, it was because Dr. Grant was shining a light into your dilated pupils. Everyone around you seemed to be exhibiting some level of extreme distress. By the time the session was over, he’d revived everyone with the promise that the next meeting, on Wednesday, would be much less traumatic for all. You are given a bottle of pills with the directions to take one in the morning and one before bed every day.
Today is Tuesday. At work, you notice Richie is acting very strange. You ask him what is wrong. He asks you if the hallucinations have started yet. You seem confused.
Very soon, you understand.
“Everyone has spiders on their faces.” he whispers to you quietly. He’s giggling about it. He seems completely unbothered, just as you seem unbothered watching the whites of his eyes slowly filling with a sloshing wine-dark liquid, thick as honey.
He sees spiders crawl out of your mouth and into your hair. He tells you about his hallucinations but you’re having a hard time listening. His eyes have begun to weep, drawing lines of red down his cheeks. His ears and nose have also begun a steady bleed. Thick and clumpy. Like he’s oozing tomato soup or sap or strawberry jam.
You both begin to giggle uncontrollably about this.
Surprisingly, your second group session with Dr. Grant goes unexpectedly well. Everyone is alert. You are buzzing with energy. The whole group was. You didn’t faint this time. Nobody did. Only a few days into the trial and you feel like you are making a lot of really solid progress.
Today he shows you some images. Lots of fun, bloody pictures and videos.
You should find the media set you view on Wednesday utterly disturbing; yet you do not. The photos and video you view are basically a reel of “greatest hits” hand-selected with care by the selective hands of Dracula.
Here is where you see a toddler playing in a puddle of sticky blood. His bib is complete with messy red handprints; some of which are dried and crusty brown. You are unphased. Here is where you see a video of a man who is showering and the water coming from the shower head is not water at all, but a waterfall of deep, dark red. He smiles widely as it splatters his face, turning his white teeth pink. You are unphased. A photo of a mousy teenager grins at you while slurping it from a glass bottle. A video: A steady stream of yellow splashing the back of a urinal slowly turns into a splatter from a murder scene. A photo of a woman smiling in the bathtub with her wrists slit. She is scrolling through Facebook on her phone. You and she and the baby and the teen and the man with his pink teeth are all smiling and unphased. You find that you are laughing, actually.
Briefly, you wonder who took these photos and what is wrong with them? More importantly, what is wrong with you and the rest of your group? Nearly everyone has spent a good deal of this session giggling, hard and deep. You notice a few people are crying tears of laughter. Of course to you, they’re bloody and they’re being smeared into streaks of rouge on their cheeks. You know you shouldn’t find this so amusing; but that doesn’t stop you.
Dr. Grant checks everyone’s progression with marked enthusiasm. He excitedly tells all of you that the third session this week will involve actual blood. Don’t worry, he says, it was donated. This is the kind that comes to hospitals in those intravenous-bags. The kind that comes for a transfusion. He might let you open them up to get a real “feel” for the actual thing. You’re excited. The man with the horned-rim glasses cheers because he can’t contain himself. This prospect makes him incredibly happy. You feel the same way, but you are more reserved in sharing your delight about this so openly. Every one of your strange peers has varying levels of open and reserved excitement.
At work, Richie tells you that he and his group watched a video of spiders eating a man’s eyes right out of his skull. They watched them hatch out of a pimple on a woman’s face. They were shown a photo of a giant poisonous arachnid hiding underneath a toilet seat. You both laugh and laugh about how remarkably the treatment is working. He tells you on Friday, his group gets to handle a live tarantula. He seems jealous when you tell him you get to play with the blood.
“Awww that’s so fuckin’ cool.” he mutters sadly. You do not think handling a giant spider is cool, but you try to reassure him that you do, in-fact, think so.
It’s understandable that he’d be jealous that you’ll get to splash around in the blood like finger-paints. This is the forbidden the paint that normally belongs on the inside of people. You tell him that his eyes are still bleeding. His ears too. His teeth and mouth look like he’s an extra in a zombie movie. He reassures you that he can see a pair of banana spiders spinning a web over each of your ears; a black widow is preening her long legs above your right eyebrow. Your mouth is filled with tiny spider babies weaving webs like floss between your teeth.
On Friday Dr. Grant tells everyone that this will be your final group session. Excitedly playing with the bags of blood, most of the five of your group are barely listening to a word he says. He wanders around the group, his hands filled with pocket sized moleskin notebooks. You and the man in the horned-rimmed glasses paint stick-figures in the puddles of red on the table-top. The bald man watches the two of you, giggling. Dr. Grant hands you your notebook. The inside page is typed with your name, some official jargon related to the test and a number denoting the group you are in.
“After today,” he begins, unsuccessfully vying with the painting for your attention, “I will be reaching out to each–” he pauses to ask the woman with the bad breath to refrain from putting her bloody hands into her mouth. “Here is a towel.” he warns her to wipe her hands and be careful not to stain the pages. They will be harder for him to read if they are covered in bloodstains…
“After today,” he begins again, “I will be reaching out to each of you personally to set aside time to meet in my offices.” You are told that you will reiterate the rest of your experience in private sessions. He will be reading over the journals and discussing all side effects you encounter. You don’t like the idea of this man, who you’ve met three times, reading your private thoughts. You find the idea of it on par with the girl with the cheap dye-job downstairs looking at you naked. You are told that you will be required to continue taking the medication for the next four weeks. After, he will evaluate and verify the results for the month following completion of the clinical trial.
“Miss Bryant, I’ll ask you again to not put your hands into your mouth. It’s not sanitary,” he says. He seems exasperated. While he isn’t looking, you dip your index finger into a bloody puddle on the table and then into your mouth to see what all the fuss is about. You think you’re being discreet but he can see the red in your teeth. He yells at you also and jots something down in his notes. This probably means that the next group of participants will not get to enjoy this Friday playdate with Dr. Grant.
You’ve been keeping the journal. You wrote your first entry. It happened when you were washing the dishes. You’re not sure they actually came clean. The water that came out of the tap was thick and red. Normally, you do prefer the dishes to be spotless. You can’t tell but think they’ve been stained. It’s not really a big deal as you are not really bothered by this, nor by the current state of your red-ringed sink.
You write all of this in your journal.
At first, you found that you had a difficult time recounting your thoughts on paper. Finding honesty during the last few weeks of the trial shouldn’t have been difficult. You’ve always been honest about who you are and you are a writer, after all.
You knew you shouldn’t share the joy you felt in this freedom. You didn’t deny yourself the joy of it; but were hesitant to unstopper your feelings in permanent ink onto the pages of the moleskin.
Dr. Grant would be reading every word.
Would be asking things about it all.
Maybe even judging you, perhaps?
Would you be so unashamed of these feelings when you answered him?
I see the blood everywhere, you write in your journal, I feel like I can almost see it coursing right beneath the skin of every person I pass on the street. I see it smeared in the smiles of every child. Every man and woman in line at the grocery store–the young and the old–every upper lip seeping with the drip of a running bloody nose. The fearless life is a better life.
Your next entry:
A van careened into a fire-hydrant on East Canal Drive right in front of me today. It was like bursting an artery that was connected directly to the heart of the town. A steady stream of dark red spraying upward fell back down to earth in a pink mist. While looking onward, through that mist, was when I realized the canal that ran next to the road flowed thick and red also. I’m not sure how long I’ve been seeing it that way. I walk this road every day.
You’re not sure what to make of these hallucinations. The rules that society has laid out for all of us tell you that these feelings of elation are a deviation from what would be considered normal passing thought. All of this. You shouldn’t delight in the constant oozing orifices in the faces of others passing you on the street–and yet you feel unable to refrain from this joy. You know that you should still shy away, but the freedom you feel from this constant exposure has liberated you.
Blood is everywhere. It was always everywhere and in everything. You didn’t see the larger picture before; not like you see it now. Finally you don’t feel the need to balk away in fear. Instead you find yourself basking in this new reckless abandon. The world is awash in a before unseen, incredible, crimson tinge. You write all of these feelings thoughtfully in your notebook you share them with Dr. Grant during your session the next week.
You discover that you’ve grown almost fond of it. It would be such a shame to deny yourself. As the trial ends, you decide to change your major. You find that you can pursue the path you were supposed to have followed your whole life. Your father cries (bloody) tears of joy when you break the news of your intent to enroll in medical school. You are unhindered now by your fear.
Rather than continue to evade, the fear now shrugged away, you find yourself lusting after it.
You begin eating your steaks medium rare. Then rare. Then finally, tartare.
You’ve spent your whole life cringing away from injury; watching horror movies through the spaces between your fingers. In retrospect, this is laughable.
When the month ends, you finish the trial. There is still yet to follow another month of meetings with Dr. Grant. A follow up month of evaluations and sharing your feelings for the pharmaceutical company’s research. You don’t really want to do this. It feels too much like treading through the past. You want to leave this behind.
“I can tell you really honestly,” he remarks to you after the conclusion of the trial, “that most of the people from your group claim to really miss seeing it. They really do.”
You tell him that you are confused.
Slowly he explains to you, “after you stop the medication, you should have stopped seeing the blood,” he explains. “The hallucinations stop within a day or two of taking the last cycle of pills.”
Oh yes. That makes sense to you that most people would stop seeing it after the end of the clinical trial. He seems shocked when you tell him that the young lady downstairs, the one who matter-of-factly looked at everyone naked on the first day of the trial, when you talked to her today, she was bleeding.
You still see people bleeding every day.
That girl, the one who wears the men’s dress shirts.
You saw her leaving his offices earlier.
She was bleeding.
You tell him that you watched Richie, from the spider group, bleed and bleed from his face and from his gut. He bled until he bled-out last night. It was fascinating. There was so much blood. It was freeing to discharge him from your fear–you liberated all of the blood trapped inside of him. You tell him that you released every last drop that you could. It’s all in your journal. Towards the back.
As the security alarm begins going off and Dr. Grant begins bleeding too, you realize they must have found one of those poor girls. Either the receptionist or the one you left in the elevator. They’ll find Dr. Grant soon too.
You wipe your knife off onto his lab coat and head out of his office window, and down the fire escape. You slink out, sinking into the open fields beyond, to the treeline at the edge of the medical campus, bathing in the tides of crimson radiance and the dying light of the blood-red sunset.-ss