Holy Mother of Mercy, I’ve actually pulled it off.
My fingers trembled as I hovered above the pale man, lying prone and completely still. Alive but not living, frozen in a deep coma. A human shell: the skin and bones, sinew and flesh, of what remained from a horrific motor vehicle accident four years past. But no — no, this was no longer quite the truth. That same human shell had just responded.
Is your name Jonathan Clevinger? is what I nearly blurted out. Instead, I caught my tongue and formulated my question with care. It would need to hold up to the inevitable scrutiny of peer-review. My rivals would be circling like hyenas, cackling and frothing at the mouth to rip into such a mistake: the equivalent of ‘leading the witness’ in a courtroom.
“Can you spell your name please, using the same method.” I spoke loud and clear, praying that those words were equipped with coma-piercing armor.
Stale basement air wafted into my nostrils. I had been holding my breath without noticing and my palms had acquired a thin layer of clammy moisture. I forced my eyes away for a moment, having been staring intently at the blinking but stationary cursor. Doubts and fears ran riot and trampled the soft lining of my stomach. Had I simply dreamed the last hour? Were my former colleagues correct? In other words, was I pulling data out of thin air? Pulling it out of a certain other posterior location?
Was Eva right? Was she right to leave?
I stared skywards, urging the blinding nostalgia — savage and unforgiving — to disappear into the fluorescent lights of my dingy laboratory. Red spots began to cloud my vision and bit my lip, urging the caustic brew in my stomach to simmer down.
I ripped tear-filled eyes back to the monitor. The cursor jumped once, before pausing.
Yes, I thought. Yes, go on. Come on, come on! I was entirely failing to keep an objective eye on the proceedings. Heartbeats rattled my ribcage like storm-tipped waves slapping against a seawall.
I closed my eyes in ecstasy, waited for a few moments, and reopened them with dread, half expecting those newest letters to have vanished. J-O-N. I paced in tight circles waiting for further letters to appear. When none surfaced, I climbed back into the musty chair and scooted over to two adjacent computer screens, the squeaking of rusty wheels grating into my temples. One screen displayed vitals and one showed low-res, real-time cranial scans. A quick glance to the left and right screen confirmed that Clevinger’s brain activity had returned to basal levels. However, as I scrolled through the raw data from the past minutes, it became evident that several lobes of his brain had been illuminated — a desert sunrise of bright yellow, fluorescent orange, and brilliant red.
I rolled my chair back to the gurney and watched the thin man’s ribs arch and fall in a hypnotic rhythm. Apparently, this latest effort had taken its toll on my longest serving patient. Jonathan required rest. Or whatever the equivalent of rest was for a man who has zero voluntary control over his bodily functions. I decided to follow my patient’s lead, double-checking each software log and alarm monitor, and shut off the overhead lights. I raised my hand in a farewell wave aimed at the statue in the hospital bed. Until tomorrow, Mr. Jonathan Anthony Clevinger, my ticket back to prominence.
My veins coursed with frantic energy as I parked in the nearly empty lot adjacent to the hospital. I had managed to squeeze in three hours of dream-addled sleep before jerking awake, glistening in anxious sweat and hyperventilating; this was my routine the past six years, like clockwork, body rolling over to the left to hold onto Eva’s waist only to grasp the cool cotton of an unoccupied pillow.
It was shaping up to be a glorious spring day here at the Tall Pines Research Hospital, the type of day that crooned for sun-soaked coffee and a hand-rolled cigarette in the arboretum. Instead, I hunched my shoulders against the gray chill of dawn and headed down the flight of stairs to my laboratory facilities. A quick peek at the monitors showed that my patient’s brain activity was well within normal range.
Ok Jonny-boy, let’s see what magic we can whip up today.
A little prayer popped up in my subconscious, asking for strength from someone who never existed. Not God; never God.
My work in this basement was the accumulation of a decade of work with comatose and function inhibited patients. During those painstaking years, I had pushed the envelope of what the field thought possible. I did what I had to do: pressing, pulling, dismantling dogma, and smashing my head against walls erected by colleagues too timid to make any real damn progress. Yes, I ruffled some feathers. Yes, I’m an abrasive workaholic — there was a simple explanation as to why I was working alone in a basement while others mingled in large research clusters. I also knew that these same colleagues were more than content with vanilla, stepwise, boring-as-hell, playing it safe neuroscience.
Or did I just miss her and what could have been? What should have been!
“Good morning, Mr. Clevinger. Once again, I want you to imagine the keyboard. A to Z. Visualize it in your mind, map out each letter clearly. When I ask you the question, simply push each letter firmly. Ok, let’s start out simple: can you hear my voice?”
The cursor blinked five times before moving right, three times in succession.
I nodded with satisfaction. Before continuing, I ensured that each cranial device was firmly attached to his sallow, smooth skull. In truth, my set-up was simple in design. Sensors measured neuronal activity in several subsections of the brain — in this case, the areas responsible for language, sensory acquisition, and fine motor skills. These sensors fed the resultant data into a machine-learning AI algorithm contained within the mold of a standard keyboard.
My rivals in the field had been dismissive at first, then intimidated, then frightened; in the end, they had arrived back at dismissive, preferring to dive head-first back into the sandpit than admit a true breakthrough. Unfortunately, the larger funding agencies followed their lead; money would only last another few months. But funding would be a problem of the past if I could acquire more data from Clevinger — more proof! Vindication in the form of white letters glaring against a black computer screen.
A tired voice seeped upwards from my brain stem. She wouldn’t have cared if I failed or succeeded. It wouldn’t have mattered to her.
“Very good. What is your mother’s name?”
Pushing aside inner voices, my eyes now feasted upon the letters with greed, temples pulsating against my eardrums and drowning out the harsh chirping of the equipment. Five letters in under ninety seconds!. He was improving. He was learning. I had been worried that the mental exertion spent visualizing and ‘pressing’ the keys would lead to early plateaus and cruelly slow transcriptions. I craved speed; I longed for the quantum leap, not to struggle with a toddler.
“Where were you born”
Time to crank it up a few notches.
“Do you remember your accident?”
This answer was preceded by a much longer pause. I craned my neck backwards in the chair to glance at the real-time monitor. Highly active in three lobes — not ‘resting’.
Now, this is interesting. A pause of such length would indicate conscious self-reflection. I took a few minutes of my own to ponder. Should I tell him the truth? Should I be merciful? After all, the crash which had left him in this pitiful state had also taken the life of his wife. I chose not to lie, and not to elaborate.
“Automobile accident. You are in a coma, Jonathan.”
Although I had not posed a question, I paused nonetheless to allow the man to respond. Regrettably, no response appeared to be forthcoming. In fact, his brain scans indicated a rapid decline in activity, back to basal levels. We had reached the limit for today.
I peeled myself from the chair and wandered up to my second-floor office, ignoring the cold, curious stares of my colleagues. Several hours whizzed by, spent responding to emails and guzzling the center’s acrid coffee. Eventually, jittery from alarming levels of caffeine and sleep deprivation, I descended back to Jonathan. Still hovering at basal levels. I opened the communication monitor and jolted backwards, nearly spilling from my chair. Another few words had been typed out, resting beneath the word ‘accident’. This sentence, however, had not been prompted by my voice.
The next week was a flurry of adrenaline, scalding coffee and restless dreams in the shape of a hovering text cursor — dreams which finally pushed away visions of diapers and playgrounds and rushing to soccer practice. Jonathan Clevinger was making fine strides in learning this novel method of communication. His responses became more elaborate, longer and with more depth and complexity.
And more depressing. I did my best to mollify the patient, but at the end of the day, I was the impartial investigator and scribe. The transcriptions began to fill up my notebook with blue ink.
I am very cold.
I am sad.
I want to come out.
Please help me leave this place.
This place. That particular phrase stuck with me between sessions, settling into my own synaptic void. Honestly, I had envisioned Jonathan to be simply experiencing a type of blank mental vacuum: a vacant space where one’s thoughts floated beside an ethereal self. But as the days passed and our conversations became more fruitful, I began to reassess this simplistic view. In the margins of my scientific notes, I began to scribble my own interpretations and personal thoughts.
The sky appears as a varying shade of vivid blue, yet it does not change as time passes. —What is ‘time’ in this plane of existence?
Six bright stars are always visible. The sun continually hovers just above one horizon, with blackness occupying the other horizon. — Not so much a void, but rather a world complete with a true sense of directionality. Endless sunset at one end and endless night covering the other.
Or ‘blackness’, as Clevinger had repeatedly stated. In several places, scribbled between blocks of data, I asked myself the question: was darkness/night different from ‘blackness’? Jonathan never directly answered that question, as if he too was unsure.
Setting aside my notes, I rubbed my raw, puffy eyes. The laboratory was dead quiet from the beeping and whirring of life-support and the absentminded tapping of my pen against the aluminum gurney brace.
Compelled and obsessed, I grabbed the notebook once more and read my own notes.
A sense of time is not evident. He does not experience sunset and impending evening, but rather constant sunlight and the pitch-black of a polar, binary sky.
How did that work? How did that make sense? Was Jonathan frozen in place? No, his dialogue clearly stated the opposite.
The concept wreaked havoc within the logical part of my brain, yet I was forced to postulate the existence of an entire physiological pseudo-world of Clevinger’s own creation: a world where he roamed over an eternal, paralyzed, timeless plain. And he was trapped.
Again and again, he pleaded for help. At first, I attempted to redirect the questioning to avoid breaking the bad news; I couldn’t simply bring him out of the coma. Even with the increased brain activity upon our communication — a breakthrough of its own rights — Jonathan didn’t possess the other essential signs which would indicate likely survival outside the comatose state.
As the days flew by, however, I became unsure of even this fact. His vitals were improving. Slowly and unevenly, yes, but soon I became more convinced. Communicating with me in this manner — a human firmly based in the real world — was weakening the barrier between us. And thus, was it weakening the barrier between reality and his fantasy coma world?
Still, I hid my conclusions from Jonathan. I didn’t want to give the poor man false hope while I was still collecting data. Right? That fact that a non-comatose Jonathan Clevinger would terminate my study did not figure into this decision, of course. He had been in a coma for over four years, surely a few more weeks of essential study wouldn’t matter in the long run — especially if the data could lead to even more breakthroughs. Think of the consequences for the medical community at large! Think of the consequences for one man’s career…
I sat stunned, fingers painfully gripping the mushy foam of the armrest, reading the line of text repeatedly. My brain rushed to respond, composing several questions, but each lodged itself in the back of my throat. I closed my eyes for a full minute before managing to stutter out,
“What do you mean, you are not alone?”
Silence. Or rather, silence in the form of a stationary cursor.
I had made certain assumptions.
Assumptions. Assumptions. Ass. Out. Of you and me.
My assumption was that Jonathan Clevinger was walking alone in a dreamscape coma world — a world purely of his own creation. He typed of towering trees, standing tall atop rolling hills like statues, bark colored with mottled hues of copper and steel, branches stock still even in the breeze. He talked of winding roads, clear cut against the emerald turf and rocky moors, snaking out in all directions like the tentacle of a giant squid — or of a human neuron. He wrote about shimmering golden grasses — waist high and pillow soft, but brittle to the touch — which crunched underfoot. He told me of the tiny silver and red birds that dive-bombed his head if he walked too fast, equipped with piercing calls far outweighing their mass. Once, he mentioned the still gray waters of a teardrop shaped pond and the lone rowboat which moved unmanned along the shore.
All the while, Jonathan tended to add in phrases like ‘what could have been’ or ‘what never was but could be’, the meaning of such words as obfuscated and cloudy as the mysterious lake. But in all those hours, he had never broached the subject of another person wandering the same landscape.
“Jonathan, where did these men come from?”
I wondered if the tone of my voice resonated into his colorful, bizarro world. I wondered if he could hear the sheer trepidation in my quavering voice.
Two men traveling on the tendril-like roads, like messengers in an ancient fable. Were these men friends from Jonathan’s life?
I rubbed at my eyes again and bit my lip. Clearly, these men were constructs born from Jonathan’s subconscious; perhaps they were men sitting across from him on the subway, or ahead of him in line at the cinema.
“Jonathan, what are these men’s names?”
A long period of inactivity followed in which I continually monitored his brain activity — still colorful. Finally, the cursor moved again. First name: Steve Morrison.
I shook my head as no connection coalesced in my memory. I squinted my eyes as the cursor moved again. Second name: Darius Johnson.
The floor opened underneath me, and my stomach tumbled end-over-end. Darius Johnson was a patient across town at Holy Cross.
In the coma ward.
I didn’t catch up on that much needed sleep over the next few days. Hell, how could I? Too many mysteries to dissect. Too many details slipping through my fingers. What’s more, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the speed of communication. The more often we attempted to converse, the longer he would need to rest. In the end, a flurry of messages would be followed by long periods of ‘resting’ brain activity. One minute, he would be recounting his attempts to measure time in his world, and the next moment he would vanish like a puff of smoke, leaving behind a blinking cursor and a billion outstanding questions.
Where did he go? Who was with him? What was this concept of ‘never was, what could have been’?
The process was exhilarating and exhausting and aggravating and fantastical all at once. I was obsessed. And obsession quickly morphed into paranoia. I avoided my colleagues at all costs now, preferring to scribble handwritten notes and scorning all but the most critical emails.
There would be time to reintegrate into this silly academic world after this study was written. After Jonathan spilled the secrets of this comatose experience. After the mysterious roads of his mind were mapped. After the barriers were breached.
Barriers. Jonathan kept mentioning barriers without elaborating. Not that he didn’t try, but I got the feeling he simply didn’t know how to explain. Barriers with this world. The blackness as a barrier. How many barriers was he talking about? Were they the same? Where did each barrier lead? He typed about how the barriers were weakening. At first, I assumed this was simply a manifestation of us breaking the communication barrier, but now I was convinced this was not the complete story.
And again and again, the concept of ‘what could have been’. Mystery upon mystery.
Speaking of mysteries, the figure of Darius Johnson lingered just outside my mental reach. As far as I could ascertain, the two men had no connection in the real world. Furthermore, a perfunctory search revealed that Steve Morrison, too, was a coma patient at Holy Cross. In the late hours — suffocating and sleepless — I began to contemplate the impossible: Jonathan and Steven and Darius were wandering around — collectively — in a shared existence. In a common…world? Mental construct? On the same damn astral plane?
Jonathan seemed reluctant to talk about these men, as if the presence of others had spooked him. Instead, I gently pressed him on the ‘blackness’. The polar opposite of the sunset horizon. The ‘black wall’ was how he sometimes described it; though I suppose it was not a solid wall, as Jonathan mentioned the presence of bulges in the surface. As if this wall was stretching or bending — warping with every passing day. Although the letters appeared on the screen in the same fashion as all the others, I felt the unease in these words. After only a few questions on this subject, all answers ceased, and Jonathan lapsed back into a prolonged basal resting state.
With an eerie feeling in my chest, I poured deep into the scan data. After a half-hour, I shot from my chair, finally noticing a small detail which had slipped past me before. Directly before our conversation about the ‘black wall’ had petered out, a clear red and yellow pulse of activity had flared near the amygdala. In plain speech, Jonathan had experienced a bout of intense, primal fear.
The next day, my research took yet another turn. Jonathan had been describing the sensation of his own body and its interaction with the environment.
The pen scraped against the notebook. Patient can feel or perceive pain. Three minutes pause. Blue ink smeared the edge of the paper and bled into my palms, filling the tiny grooves of my hand. Lifelines — looking like the roads in Jonathan’s coma world.
How long would her lifelines have been, I wondered? I jerked back to attention as the cursor jumped forward.
I squinted uneasily at the text, shaking out a sore right hand and frantically checking the correlated scans. Attention torn between several tasks, the next words throttled my spine.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I stuttered out my name without thought. The cursor failed to move for several minutes. My eyes stayed glued to the blinking rectangle, its hypnotic motion lulling me deeper inwards.
Get us out. Us?
Wait, how are they communicating? Who the hell are they? What in God’s name was going on here?
I swiveled my body around as if looking for help, gazing hopelessly around for answers in the empty, sterile room. I managed to articulate my first question to the prone figure on the gurney.
My jaw unhinged like a broken mouse trap. I looked over my shoulder at the scan monitor; Clevinger’s brain activity was far above normal levels, spires of color blossoming into view amidst the steady beep of his life support. I breathed a sigh of relief as his brain relaxed back toward a resting state.
What was happening in this room?
In that instant, the steady and slow beeps transformed into piercing alarms. Jonathan began to hyperventilate, chest heaving and fingers twitching as if clutching an electric fence. I watched in horror as his fingers clenched into fists, then relaxed, then clenched again harder, hands turning ghostly white.
A seizure rippled through his body in a wave, feet kicking underneath the blanket as if fighting off an attacker. I looked at Jonathan’s contorted face in time to spot a rivulet of crimson trickling from his left nostril and pool at the corner of his chapped lips.
Oh no, oh crap, oh no, oh crap.
Jonathan arched upwards — head and neck cresting in a wicked backbend — before collapsing. Helpless, I watched as his brain activity plummeted to dangerously low levels, before plateauing, and eventually rising toward basal levels. One half hour after the incident, his vitals were stable but concerning: breathing erratic, heart rate and blood pressure steady but low.
Finally daring to take my eyes away from the scans, I peeled my sweaty back from the chair and gulped in several deep breaths. During the entire episode, I had kept my back to the communication monitor, afraid of what I might find. Chiding myself for being a poor scientist, I pinched the bridge of my nose, and swung around to face the screen. Dread flowed down my throat like rancid oil.
The barriers are melting. All of them. Breaking through.
Please help us. The barriers are nearly gone.
I think they are coming.
Through the black. The never was.
Get us out.
The barriers are breached. They are coming for us.
Get us out.
Get us out.
Doctor, get us out.
The silent cursor blinked on and on.
I pulled Jonathan Clevinger out of the coma the next day. Yes, it was ethically the correct decision, but in fact, there was no other choice. The man had not responded to repeated attempts at communication and his once steady vitals began to slide. On the other hand, his brain activity was peeking past what was considered comatose levels. It presented a paradox — an interesting medical puzzle if I hadn’t been so rattled — in which he would surely die unless removed from the coma. I tried my best to document the process, but mostly I simply worked with shaky hands and prayed to Gods I didn’t believe in.
Jonathan woke up in the ICU ward three floors above my laboratory. The man was groggy and sedated. He blinked in mechanical intervals, eyes struggling to adjust to the fluorescent lighting, mouth opening and shutting without uttering a sound. Like a goldfish out of its bowl, I thought caustically. All in all, Jonathan Clevinger looked terrified. When the other doctors had left the room, he fixed me with a piercing gaze.
“The barriers, they are crumbling. Coming down — that’s what the people said, the people who had been there a long time. The dissolution was beginning. Everyone was running about along the trails,” he whispered, his voice raw and quiet, and he paused to gather his breath.
“They said…they said that they are coming back to us, from all sides. From over the black wall.”
He gulped down a sip of water and coughed. “I thought you pulled me out in time…but I’m not so sure. I think someone is here with me. From…before, from what wasn’t to be.”
“Jonathan, what does that mean?”
But his mouth opened and closed wordlessly again, and his head fell back onto the pillow. Sleep, not a coma. I wondered what he dreamt of; did he return to the land of the comatose or was he finally able to wander his dreams in peace?
I tramped back down the stairs toward my filthy office and paced up and down, filling, drinking, and setting down multiple cups of coffee until the phone rang. My feet smacked on the tile floor as I crossed the room and yanked the phone from its holder.
“Richards, you got a second?”
The voice on the line belonged to Don Tabor, head of the coma ward at Holy Cross. We didn’t get along; he thought of me as a crackpot charlatan, and I believed him to be a jaded old bag of wind.
“Listen, we just had a crazy night in the ward. Seven out of eight patients suddenly seized and crashed, brain activity flaring and then flatlining – and I’m talking about patients who have been in a stable coma for years. Unfortunately, we were only able to pull one out of the coma.”
I held my hand over my mouth for a moment before expressing my faux surprise, mind racing and chest bound tight.
“Anyways, the patient…hell, I don’t know how to phrase this — he is asking for you. Richards, have you met Darius Johnson before?”
I grabbed my coat and keys and slammed my shoulder into the exit door.
“I can recognize your voice, Doc. Nice to meet you, I suppose.”
Darius Johnson was a slender, dark skinned man with graying temples and clear brown eyes. The eyes expressed a myriad of emotions as they looked up into mine.
“They are with me now, Doc. They breached that black wall…they…they wanted to finally live.”
His eyes rolled slightly back in the sockets and his chest heaved. Darius was in rough shape, vitals weak and the left side of his body was paralyzed. His voice was deep and resonant, but weak, and I had to bend down to hear his words.
“Mr. Johnson, how exactly did you hear me in your coma? I was speaking to another man, so how – Who –”
And then I realized something in that moment: I didn’t understand my own line of questioning. When Darius spoke again, the tone was eerily different. Bold, level, and clear. Oddly old-fashioned, as if coming from a past generation.
“Is that him? The doctor who broke through?”
I jerked away from Darius’ face in surprise. Although nearly imperceptible, I spotted the man bob his head up and down in response to his own question. My lips froze, mid-gape.
“We give you our gratitude. Having waited for eternity and more, stuck wading through the endless dunes of time and chance, we nevertheless awaited the foretold breach. To finally cross over. To finally exist. Waiting for the wall to crack.”
A pause. Darius spoke with yet another tone, this one soft and smooth, lilting and lightly accented.
“Ah so this is it, the promised land. It’s beautiful. Much too bright, but beautiful.”
I finally found my voice, though it left my lips as a frightened hiss.
“Where have you been? Who are you?”
The same smooth tone answered — still in the deep voice of Darius Johnson but so clearly not Darius Johnson. “Ah, here she is. Someone has been eager to meet you, to see with true eyes.”
The next voice reminded me of a cold pillow, and of an empty dresser, and of tear-filled green eyes, and of a car door slamming shut. This voice was sweet and shy and a little raspy, the voice of a young girl — a girl who I knew instinctively was six years and forty-three days old.
I remember mere glimpses of my exit from the hospital. Only vague shouts of surprise from the staff, sneakers squeaking on slick floors, and the clatter of the stairwell door. When I came to, I was in the middle of the courtyard, underneath the central cherry tree. The fragrance brought me back to reality; the air was gently perfumed and flitted in and out of my nostrils.
Eva had adored this smell. My wife would come out to the tree, waiting — why did I always keep her waiting — for me to finish rounds. Waiting with that friendly bump of her tummy pointed skywards, looking at the blossoms as they swayed in the wind. Talking to her girl, describing the unrivaled majesty of pink blossoms against a blue sky, promising to press silky pedals against tiny satin-smooth hands. This very same cherry tree now reminded me of how the tree branches didn’t sway in Jonathan’s comatose world; how there, the trees stood perfectly still even as all else descended to unthinkable chaos.
An errant breeze rattled the tree and a blossom cascaded lazily down to land on the curve of my neck. The flower was surely the touch of someone who I loved but could not love, the fingertips of a girl who never was but who never left, never for a minute, even when Eva was several years gone, carried off to California on the floodwaters of grief. I picked up the flower and inhaled, and everything flooded in, all barriers long gone.