So there I was, in an elevator with these two women. The three of us covered head to toe in shame, viewed naked without our consent. I couldn’t wait to get out of this elevator. Neither could they. I was itching with my entire being for the doors to open.
When the elevator slides 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 breath 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 short list 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. You decide to be very involved.
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 smells 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 build 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 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 lulled 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.
On 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 raspberry jam.
You both begin to giggle uncontrollably about this.