‘How did you feel after you lost the leg?’
Lieutenant Jaffrey smiled and looked out the window.
‘I won’t lie to you doc, I felt like shit. Like I was less of a man. I didn’t want anyone to see me that way. Not even my family. But, you know what they say?’ He swivelled back towards me. ‘Time heals all wounds. I got my shit together. Those army docs fixed me right up. Yes, sir! Got me one of those fancy, carbon fibre blades, so now I’m like the Terminator and shit.’ He slapped his stump to make his point. ‘I can out-run and out-gun any of those pussies. I just need to get back out there and get to work. It’s half-past killing time and I’m late for my appointment!’ He said, smiling proudly, like a man who’d licked hell in the asshole and liked the taste of it.
I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I often did this when I needed a moment to collect my thoughts. Each interview was worse than the last. It was hard to deny that nurse Patterson had a point. I glanced over at her and she gave me one of those, “I told you so” looks.
I had originally come to Fort Harrow to pay them a routine sales call. It wasn’t entirely necessary, but it was my job to keep the clients happy. Also, I figured I might put an end to nurse Patterson’s conspiracy theory. She had been sending me impatient emails that there was a problem with the product that needed my urgent attention.
I figured I could wrap everything up in a day and be home for breakfast the following morning, but I was still here, a week later.
Patterson was meticulous and thorough. She paraded before me a group of corporals and lieutenants who had all received diagnoses of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”, or PTSD for short, and then miraculously recovered. They all had one thing in common - regular transfusions of Plasma 131.
131 was our latest. It came packed as a powder, which made it easier to handle in the field. All you had to do was add saline solution and voila - instant, nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood. The military loved it, although they asked for us to dye it red for cosmetic reasons, because it looked a powdery blue, which people found off-putting. Given all the conflicts that were erupting around the world - both public and clandestine - the military quickly became our biggest customer. Casualties were increasing and business was booming - for the both of us. It was a virtuous circle.
Patterson, on the other hand, was threatening to imbalance the circle. She hadn’t shared her data with anyone else to my knowledge. She was giving me the courtesy to act first.
Frankly, she was between a rock and a hard place and I knew it. She needed my help. She knew how important the plasma was to the war effort and how unsympathetic her superiors would be if she shared her concerns, especially without any hard evidence. Plus, these patients were technically “cured”. They may be acting a little strange, sure, but it wasn’t PTSD. The military loves to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, and nobody would want to open up that can of worms, again. But, Patterson couldn’t let things lie. These patients had been cured of one thing, then infected by another. As far as she was concerned, ‘You don’t trade shit for Shinola - excuse my French.’
I had to admit, she was onto something, but it wasn’t an open-and-shut case. PTSD isn’t a clear-cut diagnosis. It’s that place under the carpet where you sweep up all the bits you want to hide, a “catch-all” for many symptoms, which means we know “fuck-all” about it.
All we know for sure is that a lot of servicemen-and-women came back from the wars very screwed up in the head. They were emotionally exhausted, listless, terrified, and unable to readjust to civilian life. Prognosis was poor and recovery, remote. You’d think that the sudden improvement, then, of these particular soldiers would force the military to scramble an investigation to get to the root cause, so that they could help the others.Unfortunately, things don’t work that way. That would be accepting culpability, or worse, blame. It was better for PTSD to remain an unsolved mystery with a stigma that it was somehow the fault of the G.I. and not that of the system. That meant the deck was stacked in my favour.
But, she had struck a nerve. I had a professional curiosity. 131 was my baby. I needed to know what was going on.
Take the case in front of me. Lieutenant Jaffrey had by all accounts been a model lieutenant - decisive, measured, rational and cool under pressure. After his tour in Iraq, however, he came back a zombie. His wounds resulted in a severe loss of blood and he was given countless transfusions. Now, a few months later, he was exhibiting excessive exuberance, indecisiveness and a split personality.
‘Sorry, doc, what were we talking about again?’
‘Actually, I’m not a doctor.’
‘Then, what am I wasting my time talking to you for?’ He shot an angry glance at Patterson.
‘I work for Oxygen Therapeutics. We make the plasma that was used to patch you up.’
‘Oh, that’s good. That’s good right there.’ He leant towards me with his arms outstretched, palms up, on the table. ‘Because, I got to have it doc. I got to have me some of that blood.’
‘You don’t need any more, Jaffrey. You got the all clear,’ shot Patterson, with a warning.
‘No, you don’t understand,’ he repeated, forcefully. ‘I NEED it.’
By now, he had grabbed both my hands, so I couldn’t put my glasses back on. I didn’t need them, though, to see that his eyes were bulging out of their sockets.
‘Why do you need it?’ I asked, calmly.
He let go of me. ‘Because, it sets me free.’
‘Free from what?’
Even Patterson was leaning in, now, waiting for the punch line.
‘I’m sorry, what?’ Jaffrey blinked.
‘You were saying about the blood. It sets you free.’ I offered.
‘I did?’ He looked lost for a moment. ‘I guess I don’t remember.’
After Jaffrey was dismissed, Patterson sat opposite me at the table and raised an eyebrow, ‘Well?’
I had seen enough to realise that there was, indeed, a pattern to the cases. It was such a bizarre one, though, I didn’t dare believe it - and it was so far-fetched that I doubted Patterson had seen it, either, even if she knew something was fishy.
The problem was, I didn’t want share my theory.
I wasn’t a doctor. I was a medical researcher. I had spent my life studying blood. When Ronald, the CEO of Oxygen Therapeutics tapped me to become his number two, I thought it was a dream come true. I had devoted my life to developing a safer alternative to real blood, something with all of the benefits but none of the side-effects that come from mismatched types, or contamination from undetected diseases, and, now, he gave me my chance. He had the funding and the logistical expertise to turn my research into a real corporation.
There were other benefits, too, I can’t deny it. Perhaps, it was ironic that my first born child, Casey, was born with sickle cell anemia. Or, maybe, it was a calling. Whatever it was, I knew it was my burden and mine alone. My challenge, even. His case was particularly touch-and-go at times and the company offered tremendous health care benefits, including free transfusions on tap. Something I now had reservations about. But, I couldn’t fault the benefits. I needed those. If it wasn’t for the company, I would never be able to afford Casey’s expensive treatments, nor be given an opportunity to devote so much of my free time to finding a cure for him.
And, then, of course there were the stock options. OT was about to go public. If any of what I’d been doing at Harrow leaked out, it would scupper the IPO. My shares would be in the toilet before the bell rang on Wall Street. And I could kiss goodbye to all the generous medical care I was getting for my son.
No, I had to be a company man. There was no other way.
‘They are all exhibiting classic signs of PTSD,’ I said to Patterson, keeping a straight face.
She gave me a cold stare with bullet eyes.
Without saying a word, she got up and collected her files, straightened them into a neat bundle, and opened the door without looking at me. ‘Thank you for your time.’
I felt terrible, but what could I do?
On the drive home I kept thinking about Patterson’s silent reproach and what Jaffrey had said about setting him free. I understood something about what he meant. He was blood type AB, just like me. Our lives were ruled by clear-headedness. People looked to us to make rational decisions, when everyone else ran around like headless chickens. We were perfectionists, which made Jaffrey’s deterioration all the more pathetic for me to witness.
It was just a silly hunch, a schoolboy grasping for straws in order to have something to say to complete his essay. That’s what I wanted to tell myself.
But, case after case confirmed otherwise. In fact, it became horribly predictable. If I knew the blood type of the soldier, I could tell you his symptoms.
The Japanese have an urban myth that blood type influences personality. I know this, because I’m a blood nerd. To me, this was a fetish, like astrology. I never put much store in it, until now.
What I had seen in each case was a reversion of the blood personality type to its antithesis. For example, Jaffrey had gone from being a typical type AB to being its worst case scenario.
And he wasn’t the most abominable, either. The type B’s had become incredibly selfish, irresponsible, erratic and eager to saunter off into extremely dangerous situations, leading their colleagues with them. The type A’s, by contrast, were normally earnest, creative and patient, but after their transfusions had become incredibly anal, stubborn and argumentative. They talked back to superiors and refused to participate in drills.
I had identified a pattern, but I didn’t understand it. Why was this happening? The plasma we created was without any pathogens in it. In fact, that was one of its selling points. Why would replacing the blood of someone with something so benign bring out their worst possible nature?
I placed a call to my wife.
‘Lisa, it’s me. I’m sorry. I’ve been so busy, lately. How is Casey?’
There was a long pause, followed by a sigh.
‘He had another attack. Went for a transfusion yesterday. He seems a lot more tense and anxious than usual. We got into an argument on the way home. Didn’t you get my voicemail?’
My heart seized up. I felt terrible. Casey was type A. He wasn’t the argumentative type.
‘Is he okay?’
‘He is now. I think. He’s been cleaning his room over and over again, though. Says it has to be spotless, otherwise he can’t concentrate. Can you imagine? When was the last time he ever cleaned his room? Are you coming home?’
‘Soon. I hope. I just need to go back to headquarters first and talk to Ronald about something.’
The disappointment was audible.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I don’t want Casey to have anymore 131. Let him have regular blood, instead.’
‘Why? I thought this was better.’
‘It’s probably nothing, but I just want to work something out. Can you do that for me?’
When I pulled into the parking lot of OT, it was pretty late, but I knew that the team would still be working. We had so much business that we’d started double shifts. Also, we were preparing for a public offering and nothing could be left to chance.
I didn’t get out of my car right away. Instead, I looked at the office. It was an impressive edifice. Others might disagree. They might see a nondescript research facility, like so many others, surrounded by a business park. But, to me, it was magnificent. I had put in ten good years here. Blood, sweat and tears. When the sunset reflected off the mirrored windows, like it did now, it became a place of wondrous mystery and infinite possibility. At least, that’s how I felt when we first signed the lease. This was my second home.
‘Hey, Linda, how’s it going?’ I said to the receptionist.
‘Oh, hey, Barney. I just… I don’t know.’ She let her shoulders drop, as if hit by an anvil. She looked unusually downtrodden and overworked.
‘What’s the matter?’ Probably, the IPO, I thought.
‘I’ve just got a bucketload of paperwork and courier crap to deliver and I don’t know if I’m up to it,’ she said, smiling and crying at the same time.
Hmm. O+. Usually, she was optimistic, self-determined and self-confident. This was a very different Linda.
‘Hang in there, kid. You can do it.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, tearfully, stuffing a donut into her mouth.
Normally, I’d compliment her on her outfit, or something, but she looked as if she’d gained weight and slept in her clothes. Not that I was above reproach, myself, mind you. I’d gone on a day trip that had turned into a week. Despite the under garments and casual wear I’d bought at Target to make up for it, I’d still underestimated and spent several days living in the same clothes.
I found Ronald in his office, running on a treadmill, and shouting down the phone.
‘Fred, I don’t need need your bullshit excuses. We need to double our production, simple as that. Are you up to it? Are you up to it, or are you a weiner? What, you’re a weiner? No, I thought so. Pull a rabbit out of the hat by Monday and we’ll throw it on the barbie, yes? Good man.’ He killed the call and jumped off the treadmill. Then, he saw me and my grave expression. ‘You look like you’ve got blood on your hands.’
‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘I just spent a week at Fort Harrow investigating those irregularities.’
Ronald wanted to get straight to the point, but I wasn’t finished formulating my theory.
‘What’s with the treadmill?’ I said, pointing to it.
‘I need it,’ said Ronald, temporarily distracted. ‘I just have so much energy. I have so much to give!’ He shouted, grabbing me by the shoulder. ‘Now, spill. Do we have a problem?’
Ronald wasn’t normally like this. Sure, he was passionate, active, and a can-do kind of guy. That’s what I liked about him. I was more cautious and reserved, so I needed someone to prod me when it was necessary. But, he never talked to a subordinate the way he’d spoken to Fred. It was like he was taunting him, willing him to fail.
‘Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you. Do we have a problem?’ Ronald said, aggressively.
There was something about him that was off-kilter. I didn’t like it.
‘Ronald. Are you feeling alright?’
‘Alright? Alright??’ He guffawed. ‘I’ve never been better. I feel fresh. So, fresh! Do you know what that feels like?’
‘Is it the IPO?’
‘No, Barney, it’s not the IPO! I couldn’t care less about the IPO right now! We’re kicking ass! That’s what’s going on here. Are you feeling me? We’ve tripled capacity in a month and the stuff is still flying off the shelves.’ He stopped suddenly. A look of concern came down his face. ‘What’s the matter, Barney? You don’t look so good.’
‘It’s about 131. I think we have a problem.’
‘No. No.’ He was getting angry, now. ‘There is nothing wrong with 131. It’s the best thing that’s every happened to us. This stuff is fresh!’
‘Barney, just calm down a moment. Listen to me. I know we’ve got a lot riding on this, but it’s got some side-effects that I don’t understand. I need some time to figure it out. Run some tests.’
His face darkened, ‘Tests? Tests?? What the hell for? We’ve run countless tests on the stuff. We bent over backwards to satisfy those dickheads at the FDA. Don’t you remember? I had to wine and dine that weasel Feinstein for a century, listening to his whiny voice and staring at his greasy comb-over through an eternity of unsatisfactory vegetarian dinners that this company paid for, all to bring your brain-child to market, yes? So, what’s the Goddamn problem?’
My mind was a mess, a jumble of disjointed observations and half-baked hunches. I needed to speak out loud to sort them out, or at least hear how ridiculous they sounded.
‘Imagine that you have an innate personality. Something you were born with. A propensity to behave a certain way. And, suppose - just suppose - that your blood was a counterweight.’
Ronald was getting fidgety. ‘A counterweight to what?’
‘I don’t know. A regulator of some kind. Imagine if the blood was regulating you, smoothly out the rough edges, holding you back from being the unadulterated you.’
‘That sounds like a bad thing.’
‘It isn’t if your denatured personality is too extreme. In such a case, your blood is your friend. It keeps you in check. Evens you out. Brings out the better side of you.’
‘So you’re saying that 131 removes the regulator?’
‘Maybe. These soldiers I saw at Harrow… It’s as if they’re blood was helping them to be true to type, to be what was expected of them. When it was replaced, it brought out the worst in them.’
’That would mean the worst is their true self.’
Ronald shook his head, ‘Even if you’re right - and I’m not saying you are, since that’s the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever heard - then this is a good thing.’
‘It means that 131 brings out the REAL you. How can that be bad?’
‘You should have seen these soldiers, Ronald. They were… crazed.’
‘No, Barney. It’s a win-win. We take the defect and make it a feature, don’t you see?’
I didn’t like where this was going.
Ronald continued, ‘The army needs people who will be all that they can be, right? Well, this stuff makes them so. And as long as they keep on killing, instead of dribbling in their soup from all the psycho meds, we’ve done a good thing.’
‘Ronald, please, this isn’t a good thing.’
‘Shut up, Barney.’ His savagery caught me off guard. ‘Now you sound like Feinstein. Stop whining and get with the program.’ He put his hands on my shoulders and drew me close. ‘You have given people a chance to liberate themselves from their oppression. Now, they can realise their true destiny, without the blood of their forefathers coursing through their veins, holding them back, and polluting their conscience. Do you see? This is the breakthrough of the century! This is fresh!’
I had a sinking feeling. This was all too familiar. And he was type B.
‘Are you using the product?’
Ronald didn’t say anything. He was still searching my eyes for a spark of brotherhood.
‘Ronald,’ I repeated, ‘are you using 131?’
‘Yes!’ He exploded. ‘I was curious after what you told me about Patterson’s emails. And you know what? It’s fucking amazing! I’ve never felt this… this…’
‘Fresh?’ I offered.
‘Yes! It’s like a giant weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel cleaner. Toned. My senses are sharper. I can even smell other people’s fear. It’s incredible.’ He paced the room like a caged animal. ‘The whole company’s doing it, too.’
‘What?’ Now, I was scared.
‘I made it a mandate.’ He laughed. ‘You should have been here to see it! Matherson hasn’t slept in three days. Can you imagine? Nobody has. We’re all giving it our everything and we’re loving it!’
‘Not everyone,’ I said, thinking of Linda on reception.
‘There will always be some,’ he said in a sinister voice, ‘that won’t get with the program. They need to come around. I’m hoping they will.’
We stared at each other for a moment, neither of us daring to blink.
I stayed awhile longer. I made it clear to Ronald that I couldn’t go on, not with that stain on my conscience. He cut me a check to buy out my shares. It was nowhere near what they’d be worth, but it was enough for me. It had to be. I didn’t know what I was going to tell my family. They wouldn’t understand. Perhaps, they would even hate me for it.
Had I known then that my wife would leave me and that Casey would deteriorate, I might have chosen otherwise. But, that’s the benefit of hindsight, isn’t it? I had to live with myself each and every day of my life, so this was the decision I made.
I shared a rare bottle of scotch with Ronald - the one we’d plan to drink on our IPO. It wasn’t nearly as happy an occasion, for me anyway, but Ronald was in a mood to celebrate. He knew he was going to be richer than his wildest dreams and that was good enough for him.
As I got in the car, I cast one last look at the facility. It was going to hurt a lot to say goodbye, so I didn’t. I just drove on out of there. Hit the accelerator and didn’t look back. I thought it would be better that way.
Unfortunately, the booze and the speed were not a good combination for me. I thought I saw an animal’s eyes reflected in the lights, but it could’ve been a night reflector on the asphalt. I’ll never know.
I swerved to avoid a collision and ended up hitting a tree. All I remember was the ambulance team carting me out of the wreckage on a gurney. When we got into their vehicle, they gave me words of encouragement, because they knew I was in shock. There was blood, lots of blood, everywhere. I had no idea where it had come from.
One of the attendants stuck a needle in my arm. I traced the plastic line up to a bag.
I saw something all too familiar.
‘No!’ I shouted.
One of the attendants grabbed a sedative. I tried to claw at my arm and get the needle out, but they held me down, until it was too late.
I drifted off into oblivion.